It is said that novelist Ernest Hemingway, when asked to write a full story in six words, responded with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
A few years ago, Smith – an online magazine that specializes in memoirs – adopted the same challenge and invited their readers to write the story of their own lives in six words. It then compiled the overwhelming feedback into a collection titled “Not Quite What I Was Planning.” The book is full of well-known names (Stephen Colbert: “Well, I thought it was funny”), but also has its fair share of more obscure writers – everyday authors who submitted sentences like “Mistakenly kills kitten. Fears anything delicate” and “I still make coffee for two.” The collection runs the whole gamut of emotion – from sad to witty to profound. You are left with the distinct feeling that you have been confided in, relied upon and have almost eavesdropped by reading – but in the best sense. It’s powerful, reading these condensed life stories.
I first discovered the six-word memoir during my senior year of high school. I was caught in rush-hour traffic when I heard a story about them on National Public Radio. Smith Magazine’s founding editor (“Big hair, big heart, big hurry”) and its memoir editor (“Bespectacled, besneakered, read and ran around”) were being asked for their reactions to the phenomenon they had helped to create. They gushed about the response that they had received and how lucky and grateful they felt to be able to have a glimpse into the lives of thousands of perfect strangers. They admired in particular the candor and the wry senses of humor of the writers.
I was instantly captivated by the idea. I shared the story with my English class and we set about writing our own memoirs – both for ourselves and for one another. It was easy to write for my peers, and the results were always hilarious. There is something perfect about the number six. There is potential for symmetry in three and three or two, two and two, as well as for rhythm that you just cannot get with five words or seven words.
But more than that, there is something cathartic in the act of both writing your own six-word memoir and in reading those of others. The 832 memoirs featured in the first collection are rife with philosophies and adages about life and sentiments of hope, optimism and heartbreak. It is gratifying to imagine the sense of pride and validation that their authors must feel knowing that they have been published and commemorated – and that they will be shared, mulled over and remembered long after their stories have ended. Reading them also leaves me wanting to know more – both about the author and his or her story. What happens next? Is there an epilogue?
We live in an age of overexposure and instant gratification. The growth of virtual social networking means that we are connected to each other and conveying bits of ourselves all of the time – through Twitter updates, Facebook postings, blog entries and YouTube uploads.
There is never a shortage of information being exchanged. People are telling their stories all day every day. But in all of the clutter and prolixity, are we really saying anything of consequence? There always seems to be an overabundance of debates, criticisms, reflections and “reader commentary.” All of it can grow tiring and tedious. And so I take refuge in six-word memoirs because they have extracted only the most necessary components to tell a story. They are neat and manageable even when their subject matter is not. They refocus our attention and help to reassure us that sometimes less is more. I know this much is true. Six words.
Margaret Delaney is a sophomore in the College. She can be reached at mdelaneythehoya.com. I Know This Much Is True appears every other Tuesday.
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