'Six Word Memoirs' tell big stories

Here and Now

Cover of book "Not Quite What I Was Planning" by Smith Magazine

This story was originally covered by PRI's Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

Folklore has it that Ernest Hemmingway was challenged in a bar bet to write a novel in just six words. He wrote: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." In late 2006, the editors at Smith Magazine, an online magazine dedicated to community storytelling, decided to bring this six-word story idea to the public, but they added a wrinkle to the challenge.

"We're living in this totally confessional age with memoirs, and blogs, and reality TV," says the magazine's senior editor Rachel Fershleiser, "and it just seemed like the time to take this classic concept and give it a twist for the personal story of your true, own life."

From this idea, "Six Word Memoirs" were born. The magazine invites any internet user to submit her six-word memoir. Founder and editor Larry Smith explains what happened, "It turns out it's a fun, silly thing, but so much of it is intense -- something like, 'Ex-wife and contractor now have house.'"

The project has spawned multiple books, which include submissions by both the famous (Stephen Colbert, Juno Diaz, Malcom Gladwell) and the unknown. One book is all about love and heartbreak, and another is dedicated entirely to teen submissions.

The company has experienced heightened participation among teens and has created a sister-website, "SmithTeens." Fershleiser explains why she believes the generation that is now teenagers is cut out for "Six Word Memoirs":

For the people who wrote for our "Six Word Memoirs" projects originally, the idea of telling personal, personal stories on the internet and then in published books and then some of them on national television, you know, was like this really brave step.

And for these 16 year olds, who've grown up in our confessional culture, it's just second nature. So they were already coming home and writing live journals or going on their Facebook or telling, you know, their friends in IM. So there was already this sense that's like, "of course we share our personal stuff online, of course all those pictures of my birthday party are going to be up on Flickr."

Many teens use the site to write multiple memoirs a day, and the online community can be a support system to find others struggling through the same pivotal moments.

In addition to the magazine's online and print components, the company travels around conducting "readings" which end with "six word slams" that include the audience. Fershleiser describes the events:

It's like some cross between, you know, an AA meeting and a comedy show and a support group.


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