Six Questions with the Maestro of Six-Word Stories

larrysmith1One of the biggest challenges any writer faces is to write it short, as we well know at 100 Word Story. A 100-word story looks like a saga compared to a 6-word story, though. We went to Larry Smith, the founder of the phenomenon known as the Six-Word Memoir Project, to find out how these tiniest of stories became such a big thing.

Who is Larry Smith in six words?
Big hair, big heart, big hurry.

Why did you start the Six-Word Memoir Project?
I launched Six-Word Memoirs as one of a number of projects on SMITH Magazine, the storytelling community I started in 2006. The site was called SMITH both for the populist vibe of what is the most common surname in America, and as a tribute to my grandfather, who everyone called Smitty and was a wonderful storyteller

Six-Word Memoirs was first launched as a one-month challenge with a newish company called…Twitter (see www.twitter.com/sixwords). There were a number of inspirations for Six Words. There’s the literary legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a novel in six words (“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”). And NaNoWriMo was also part of the story. When my SMITH co-founder Tim Barkow and then-senior editor Rachel Fershleiser and I were bouncing around the idea for Six-Word Memoirs, Tim was deep in the blood, sweat and tears of NaNoWriMo; he loved the idea of complimenting his massive output with snackable sixes along the way, and aimed to launch Six Words toward the end of November, just as the NaNo exhaustion was truly kicking in.

This was right before Thanksgiving, and back then all the submissions went to my inbox. I remember telling my family about it and everyone at the table, from 6 years old to 80, totally got it and started swapping Six-Word Memoirs; sixes were flying across the table. When I checked my email that Black Friday, I had 2,000 messages. That combination of events told me we were onto something big. More than seven years, seven books, a board game, and nearly a millions Six-Worders later on SixWordMemoirs and SMITHTeens.com, the concept just gets bigger and more interesting in ways I could never have imagined.

Why do you think sixes caught on with such a variety of people, especially those who don’t necessarily identify as writers?
In short: six words are an easy way to start writing—a catalyst to break the mind’s ice or whatever form of block you may be experiencing. Once you get the six-word bug, they become quite addictive.

The staying power of the form, I think, is that Six-Word Memoirs are a great way to get a glimpse into another person’s personality, humanity, essence. Clicking through the site or picking up one of our books for just one minute gives you dozens of new characters to imagine and ways to think about life. There’s this feeling of intimacy and connection in a world gone digital, and a real sense that every person’s story is equally important and needs to be told. It’s both voyeuristic and liberating. And, above all, anyone can write a Six-Word Memoir, from bestselling writers like Dave Eggers and Joyce Carol Oates, celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Dr. Oz, and hundreds of thousands of people who perhaps never thought of themselves as “writers”—and indeed they are.

What goes into writing a good six-word story?
Great question. Here are six tips for writing Six-Word Memoirs, with one example each.

1. Be Specific
“After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.”

2. Be Honest
“Girlfriend is pregnant, my husband said.”

3. Write Like You Talk
“Barrister, barista, what’s the diff, Mom?”

4. Experiment With Structure
“ABCs. MTV. SATs. THC. IRA. NPR.”

5. Tell a Story
“Ex-wife and contractor now have house.”

6. Be Yourself
“Finally learned that weird is a compliment.” (that’s from one of our young scribes at SMITHTeens.com)

Do you have a favorite all-time six-word story?
I’ll share two which strike different notes for me:

“Dad’s funeral, daughter’s birth, flowers everywhere.” —Tiffany Shlain

“Married by Elvis. Divorced by Friday.” —G.M. Rouse

What’s next? Seven words?
Seven is way too many words….

One very exciting initiative is a new website and workbook created specifically for teachers. Almost immediately after our first book came out, we saw teachers at all grade levels using the form as a classroom tool, so now we’ve made bringing six words into schools even easier.

We’re also working on a few books that take the six-word form beyond pure memoir and into areas such as advice. We’re about to open up submissions a new book of six-worders on healthy living, done in collaboration with the American Cancer Society. And back to the more personal realm, we’re working with a group to put out “Six Word War Stories”—short, intense, and often funny stories from men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan ranging from the intense (“Sleep to cope. Never get rest.”) to the irreverent (“Incoming rockets? Turn up the music.”).

We’re also launching a new Six-Words Live series at the 92Y in New York City. What happens here is that a number of storytellers (some pros, some first-timers) start with a Six-Word Memoir on the show’s theme (love, creative life, war, etc.) and then have six to eight minutes to tell the backstory. I love these shows because, well, I love live events, but also because they reveal how six words so often lead to three words any storyteller wants to hear: Tell me more.

We’re also working on a few books that take the six-word form beyond pure memoir and into areas such as advice, and are now taking submissions for “Six Words on the Best Advice Given or Received”, which is scheduled to be published in 2015 from St. Martin’s Press.

For more, watch Larry Smith talk about the origins of SMITH and Six Words at PopTech.

One Response to “Six Questions with the Maestro of Six-Word Stories”

  1. Lisa Thompson says:

    And a great 6-word response always:

    I could not put it down! (Cliche, but true)

    Do you need a reviewer? I’m interested.

    Thanks!

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