What Is the Story of Your Life? Please Summarize in Six Words
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Welcome to WORDMASTER. I'm Adam Phillips, sitting in for Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble. See if you can identify what these three sentences have in common:
Found true love. Married someone else.
Young, skinny: ridiculed. Old, skinny: envied.
And one I can relate to:
It gets lonely, behind a microphone.
The answer is: they are all self-contained memoirs, and they each contain just six words. They are among the more than fifteen thousand six-word memoirs submitted to Smith Magazine, an online journal devoted to storytelling. In late 2006, journal editors invited readers to send in their own six-word creations.
Now, 832 of those little gems have been collected into a book called "Not Quite What I Was Planning." Our guests today, Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith, both of Smith Magazine, co-edited the volume, which is the first of several planned.
First, tell me Rachel, what is your working definition of a memoir?
RACHEL FERSHLEISER: "A memoir is any story that encapsulates your life, what you remember, what's important to you. And that's why this six-word form is so wonderful, because it helps you distill what's really important. Some people choose to encompass everything. So if you look at the title of the book, Not Quite What I Was Planning -- which was a six-word memoir -- that can pretty much apply to a whole life and almost anyone's life."
On the other hand, you can have something like John Bettencourt's six-memoir: One tooth. One cavity. Life's cruel. And that takes one tiny aspect of a person's life and expands it to say more than that one tiny detail might say.
LARRY SMITH: "He's saying you know, I got a bad deal, life is cruel. In the same moment, I'm laughing. I'm smirking at it. And that's the thing about the six-word memoir form: you really can look at a specific moment that may have affected your whole life. For example: Paul Bellows -- like most of our contributors, an unknown person that came through our site. His six-word memoir: Never should have have bought that ring. That tells a whole story about a moment in his life and about a life regret."
RACHEL FERSHLEISER: "When we put the challenge out there -- and we didn't really know what we'd get back -- we thought people would be funny; they would be clever; they would be pithy. But I don't think we really understood how deep they'd be able to go. And these memoirs are so diverse and so honest. So many of them are about regret, about sadness, about loneliness, about mistakes that you've made. And people put it right out there. They put their names on it. They were so happy to share it.
"And I burst into tears looking through the contest entries. Ronald Zalewsky says: Was father, boys died, still sad. That was a level of power I wasn't intending to get."
AP: "I know your own six-word memoirs are in the book. After meeting you, Rachel, I'd say that your own contribution -- 'Bespectacled, besneakered, read and ran around' -- describes you pretty well. What's your memoir, Larry?"
LARRY SMITH: "My own six-word memoir is quite simple: Big hair, big heart, big hurry. It's kind of playful, kind of fun, [and] no great masterful prose. But people respond to it and, most importantly, it's true to who I am."
Hair is a common theme in the six-word memoir book. One of my favorites is by A.J. Jacobs: Born bald. Grew hair. Bald again.
RACHEL FERSHLEISER: "It's a beautiful little life cycle. One of my favorite six word memoirs is by Karen Franklin: Trains. Planes. Thumb. Then children come. Now thumb, of course, the word just really means a digit on your hand. But if you think about that image of hitchhiking, of sticking your thumb out in the middle of the road and getting picked up and going who knows where, it's such an image of youth and freedom. And when you settle down and have babies, you are not traveling by thumb anymore. So I love that, with the one word thumb, she has actually communicated a whole lifestyle."
Writing their memoirs has been a real beginning for many of the contributors, many of them were really wary about writing.
LARRY SMITH: "A blank page is very scary when you are writing your memoir or your autobiography. A blank page that is filled with six words is not scary. You can write six words."
RACHEL FERSHLEISER: "This is a great way to get going with using words. If you are afraid to write, if your English isn't so good, it's a way to start, it's a way to learn, and it's a way to have fun."
I've been talking today with Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser of Smith Magazine. They are co-editors of Not Quite What I Was Planning, a collection of six-word memoirs readers submitted to them online, at smithmag.net.
By the way, Larry and Rachel are offering Wordmaster listeners five slots in their next volume. If you'd like your six-word memoir to be considered, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You never know until you try. Hey, that's also six words! For WORDMASTER, I'm Adam Phillips.