Just Six Words, So Many Stories

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Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure
Rachel Fershleiser C’02 and Larry Smith ASC’91.
Harper Perennial, 2008. $12.

By Susan Frith | As life stories go, these are brasher and briefer than your typical Alumni Note:

“After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.”

“Ex-wife and contractor now have house.”

“Never really finished anything, except cake.”

That’s how three different readers of—and writers for—SMITH magazine summed up their lives in the haiku-like six-word format. Their compact memoirs cozy up to hundreds of diverse others in Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs By Writers Famous and Obscure.

The project was co-edited by Larry Smith ASC’91 and Rachel Fershleiser C’02, both editors at SMITH magazine (www.smithmag.net), a website that celebrates personal stories of all stripes [“Web, Take Two,” Sept|Oct 2007].

SMITH’s editors weren’t the first to think of the six-word concept. As literary legend has it, Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words. He responded with “For sale: baby shoes; never worn.”

“We’re a site that focuses on personal narrative and memoirs, so we thought it would be fun to play with that idea for our readers,” Smith says.

They called upon prominent wordsmiths like Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Sebastian Junger for examples, then asked the website’s readers to add their own. In the first two months, 15,000 submissions came in. SMITH posted many on its website and sent them to subscribers’ cell phones through Twitter, a free social-messaging service; their favorites went into the book. Word rippled through the blogosphere.

“It’s fun and it’s taken off in a way we couldn’t imagine,” Larry Smith says. The six-word memoir has been “taught” in graduate school, used as inspiration before an aerobic spinning class in Kentucky, even incorporated into an online eulogy. (A California woman who writes about her card-playing grandmother imagines that the latter’s final six words, after looking back on her colorful life, would be: “Look, I have a royal flush!”)

“It became an online meme,” Smith says. “That’s cool because it has a life of its own. People will be doing [six-word memoir] contests, and they don’t even mention the book, but that’s OK. It helps the book even if you can’t always measure [the effect on sales].”

For most people, a blank page is very intimidating. But the six-word memoir presents a manageable challenge for almost anyone, Smith says. “At six words you can write 20 of them and send in your favorite.”

Smith has officially written two, including “Big hair. Big heart. Big hurry”—but like his co-editor, he has composed many more. “Rachel and I are so addicted to this thing,” he says. “I’m on the beach last summer at Fire Island and I hear my wife yell to me, ‘Quit counting, just swim!’ because she sees my fingers moving. I’m constantly doing it.”

According to Smith, it’s easier to be funny than sad or poignant in six words, but the book fits many moods. “One of my favorites doesn’t sound that good over the phone: ‘Barrister, barista, what’s the diff, mom?’ There’s a little bit of self-humor, a little bit of self-loathing, and she’s using language really nicely—I love it.”

A nine-year-old thyroid-cancer survivor contributed, “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends.” Many entries are playful—some unsettlingly so, such as: “Fact-checker by day, liar by night.”

Which brings us to the genre of the fictionalized memoir, whose pantheon includes James Frey and, most recently, faux gang-veteran Margaret B. Smith (Love and Consequences).

“We talked about that a lot, even before the latest thing with the gang girl,” Smith says. But it would be nearly impossible to fact-check each of the numerous six-word memoirs that have been submitted. Take the entry of one Andie Grace: “Wasn’t born a redhead; fixed that.”

“There’s a truth they’re conveying whether or not she was a redhead or a blonde,” Smith says. “But if it was something like ‘I had sex with Stephen Colbert,’ we wouldn’t print that.”

Some topics seem to lend themselves easily to the six-word form. Booze, for instance. (“Carried flask for unsociable social events.”) And love—transcendent, regretted, untested. (“Should have risked asking, he sighed.”)

Not surprisingly, nearly 50 entries relate to reading and writing. (“Palindromic novels fall apart halfway through.”) Six involve ex-convicts; three cite near-death experiences; and two bring up the Catholic brotherhood. (“Being a monk stunk. Better gay.”)

All serve as a reminder that there are countless more stories out there, waiting to be pressed into six words. SMITH editors are working on a sequel.

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