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“Say It All in Six Words”

by Lizzie Widdicombe

The New Yorker, February 25, 2008

            Every single sentence six words long! Brilliant.

            Brevity: a good thing in writing. Exploited by texters, gossip columnists, haikuists. Not associated with the biography genre. But then—why shouldn’t it be? Life expectancies rise; attention spans shrink. Six words can tell a story. That’s a new book’s premise, anyway. “Not Quite What I Was Planning.” A compilation of teeny tiny memoirs. The forebear, it’s assumed, is Hemingway. (Legend: he wrote a miniature masterpiece. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Slightly sappy, but a decent sixer.)
            The book’s originator: SMITH online magazine. It started as a reader contest: Your life story in six words. The magazine was flooded with entries. Five hundred-plus submissions per day. That’s two, three words a minute. “We almost crashed,” an editor said. Memoirs from plumbers and a dominatrix (“Fix a toilet, get paid crap”; “Woman Seeks Men—High Pain Threshold”). The editors have culled the best. And, happily, spliced in celebrity autobiographies: “Canada freezing. Gotham beckons. Hello, Si!” “Well, I thought it was funny.” “Couldn’t cope so I wrote songs.” (Graydon Carter, Stephen Colbert, Aimee Mann.) Mario Batali makes a memorable appearance: “Brought it to a boil, often.” So does Jimmy Wales, of Wikipedia: “Yes, you can edit this biography.” Still, there are not nearly enough. Where’s Eli Manning, and Katie Couric? (“Little brother; big game; last laugh”? “Morning girl goes serious at night”?) And what of the Presidential candidates? (“From Ill.; met Bill; iron will.”) Something from Obama would be nice: “Hope is stronger than dope, kids!” A Canadian minister has done Jesus’: “God called; Mother listened; I responded.” Quieter lives can be condensed, too. The editors offer a few guidelines. “Try not to think too hard.” That’s from SMITHs editor, Larry Smith. It’s impossible, of course, to follow. There’s the temptation to be ironic: “Born in California. Then nothing happened.” Or to blurt out something angry: “Everyone who loved me is dead.” “Try to use specifics,” Smith added. (“After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.”) That doesn’t rule out dazzling nonsense. “Eat mutate aura amateur auteur true” (Jonathan Lethem’s nesting-doll-like memoir). Wistful recollections work; so does repetition: “Canoe guide, only got lost once.” “Birth, childhood, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence, adolescence . . .” You could spend a lifetime brainstorming.
            The book party: Housing Works, downtown. Cookies and beer on a table. Sticky notes and markers up front: “Write your memoir on your nametag!” In back, Alex Cummings, twenty-six (“Arab hillbilly goes to New York”). He’s Egyptian, born in West Virginia. He’d come with his wife, Saira. She did not wear a nametag: “It’s hard to summarize your life.” Nearby was the author Maryrose Wood (“Divorced! Thank God for Internet personals”). She reminisced about a Sondheim show. She had been a chorus girl. She sang a lyric about divorces. “My career has come full circle.” Next, Justin Taylor—reddish hair, beard (“Former child star seeks love, employment”). A onetime child model in Miami. He’d posed for German fashion magazines. “You wouldn’t know, looking at me.” The writer David Rakoff was there. He wasn’t wearing a nametag, either. “I’m not really a nametag guy.” He said he liked his memoir: “Love New York; Hate Self (Equally).” It was similar to his books. “The same sort of glib persona.”
            Julie Goss had driven from D.C. (“Inside suburban mom beats urban heart”). She was talking to Anthony Ramirez—a Metro reporter at the Times. He had submitted a memoir, too. The SMITH editors hadn’t used it. Ramirez said his feelings were hurt: “I desperately wanted to get in.” There was Summer Grimes, twenty-five. She’s a hairdresser in St. Paul. She had written the book’s title. It took “two minutes,” she explained. She had forgotten all about it. Then SMITH sent her an e-mail: “Your contest entry has been chosen.” She thought it was a scam. Then she saw the book—Amazon. She answered the next SMITH e-mail. They told her about the party. They sent a free book, too. Grimes opened it to her memoir: “Not quite what I was planning…” She wasn’t sure about the ellipsis: “Now I’m totally second-guessing myself.”

Say It All in Six Words.pdf or Say It All in Six Words.doc versions of this article.

“As an autobiographical challenge, the six-word limitation forces us to pinpoint
who we are and what matters most — at least in the moment.
The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.” -- Larry Smith

Videos

TED Talk

“Told You I’d Be Published Someday: The Story of the Six-Word Memoir Project”

Introduction to Assignment --
Not Quite What I Was Planning

Teen Memoirs -- I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets

Six Tips for Writing Six-Word Memoirs


Best Sites

Daily Six
Smith
magazine’s daily memoir postings (caution for adult language). You can post your own here for a chance to be in the next book. The website includes short videos with illustrated quotes illustrated, a daily memoir, t-shirts to order, ongoing contests, and additional collections of six-word memoirs.

Prezi on Six-Word Memoirs
 

Specific Books

Book 1Not Quite What I Was Planning Teaching Guide


Teen


 

I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets
Teaching Guide



Articles

CBS News, “Six-Word Memoirs Can Say It All” -- February 26, 2008. Overview of project.

TED Conversation: “Life, in six words: Highlights from our chat with Larry Smith.”

NPR Six-Word Memoirs: Life Stories Distilled -- February 7, 2008. Includes audio.

PowellsBooks.Blog “The Joy of Six” -- January 29, 2010. Discussion of success of form, with links to several videos.

Wired, “Very Short Stories” -- (Issue 14.11 - November 2006) 33+ science fictioon versions.

Washington Post “Through Children’s Eyes” -- illustrated versions by young children.

My Process

Doneness

My process -- I begin the project by showing the introductory video above. Then I show my PowerPoint Directions. I ask them to use a very simple template posted in Google Docs so that there is a consistency of picture size, font, etc. You may choose to let your students have more freedom with design.

PowerPoint Blank Slides

My Assignment Handout

Grading Checklist

Mini-Poster

 

Samples

My PowerPoint Examples -- All slides created by former students and fellow teachers over the years. Just some of my favorites.

Mr. Wright’s Creative Writing Class -- Each student designed an individual slide in an individual style. Kind of quirky but very creative.

O Magazine Mini-Memoirs -- Including Oprah’s.

Handouts

Novel Six-Word Memoir -- Adapted as a book project, students write Six-Word Memoirs for the protagonist, the antogonist, and the plot.

Historical Six-Word Memoir -- Students write and illustrate a Six-Word Memoir for a historical figure. Would also work well for a biography book report. Stole idea from Glenn Wiebe’s blog post.

Assignment Handout -- Two-pages inclusive, would work for elementary classes as well. (Ledbetter)

Quotes

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”
       --Ernest Hemingway, “Death in the Afternoon.”

“Every piece of writing, no matter how flat and useful, is a crowd of stories, and each of them is a sentence. Every sentence tells a tale: it names someone (or something) and tells you something about them - what they did; what they are; or what happened to them.”
       --Mark Tredinnick, The Little Green Grammar Book (19).


Six-Word Mini-Poster

Poster

 

If you download or print anything from this site, please consider making at least a $5.00 donation through PayPal.
I can maintain and expand this website only with your help.

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Updated 19 July 2014.