Those six words rocked my world more than any others I've heard in this wild, unwieldy, otherworldly six-word memoir journey we've been on for two-plus years now. But I'm jumping ahead.
Since we launched the six-word memoir challenge on SMITH in late 2006 and then published a book of our favorites, we've seen amazing things happen that, literally, were not quite what we were planning.
The six-word form has proved to be an unexpectedly elegant and accessible tool for self-expression and personal storytelling. The thing is now bigger than Hemingway, who legendarily was challenged in a bar bet to write a story in just six words ("For sale: baby shoes, never worn."), and certainly bigger than SMITH. From a reverend in North Carolina who preached six-word prayers, to a midwestern book blogger who created a six-word memoir meme, which still races across hundreds of thousands of personal blogs, six-word memoirs have taken on a life beyond our wildest expectations. Who knew?
But nothing has been as inspiring as the stories of six-word memoirs being taught in classrooms and after-school programs around the world. On YouTube, I stumbled upon this project from teens from the Sprout Creek Farm in Poughkeepsie, NY. (In my day, we just milked cows.)
Soon we started going to schools ourselves. We held a six-word slam in a high school in downtown NYC where scores of teens stood up without fear or self-consciousness and told stories that ranged from the super-personal ("Fat camp makes fat kids fatter") to the political ("Obama ran, so I could fly"), the universal ("Still scared about being grown up") and the intensely specific ("I think your mom is hot"). Love that. Another classroom we visited had a wall full of six-word memoirs with illustrations, including this one picture below. The young writer explained to me that her six words are about the story of her coffee jones, and downsides to her favorite barista's disappearance. (I'm going to send her a pound of the good stuff from Stumptown.)
And about that soulful nine-year-old. This spring, my nephews invited me to come speak to a couple of their classes. I spent the day back in my South Jersey hometown, walking the same halls I trotted three decades ago, and talking to a shockingly attentive bunch of kids, grades two through six, about why storytelling is awesome, and how only they can tell their own story best. I was reminded that teaching is really tough — and just why people do it. I saw that sixth graders are intense and intelligent little beasts, and that second graders are just plain brilliant. "Tried surfing on a calm day," one little girl told me (the Buddha's got nothing on her). "Always in trouble, not really troubled." (Did he even know how genius his sentiment is?) But as we went around the room, one girl looked me in the eye and said, "Nine years stacked within my soul," I was blown away. A few weeks later, the class compiled their words from that day, as well as some new ones, into a book that's firmly in lockstep with classic zine culture. It's called Not Quite What We Were Planning: Six-Word Memoirs from Mrs. Nixon's Second-Grade Class. Receiving this, for me, was the ultimate gift of six.
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SMITH magazine founding editor Larry Smith ("Now I obsessively count the words") has worked as an editor at Men's Journal, ESPN magazine, and Might. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Popular Science, on Salon.com, and many other places. Larry lives in New York City.
Rachel Fershleiser ("Morning: national television. Afternoon: bookstore bathrooms") is SMITH's memoir editor and has written for the Village Voice, the New York Press, Print, and the National Post. Rachel lives in New York City.
Books mentioned in this post
Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser is the author of It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure