A couple years ago, the storytelling magazine SMITH issued a challenge to its readers: “Can you tell your life story in six words?” Inspired by the legend that Ernest Hemingway once won a bet that he could complete a story in just six words (His story: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”), the magazine’s call for mini-memoirs was answered with thousands of submissions and resulted in the New York Times bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning. Because so many people’s submissions dealt with love and heartbreak, SMITH followed up with the newly published book, Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak. We talked to SMITH co-founder Larry Smith about what will get your story included in the next book and how his own love story goes.
You get hundreds, sometimes thousands, of six-word memoir submissions every day. Why do people love writing them so much?
It’s kind of addictive, and there are so many things going on behind the six words. There’s our need to tell stories and express ourselves that goes back to the cavemen and up to a cocktail party you’ll go to tonight. We really want to tell stories, and we’re drawn to storytellers. But most people really don’t understand that their story is valid. They say, “Who would want to know that? I don’t have a story.” But their story is valid, and they should have a place to tell it. A six-word memoir is great because it’s not a novel, and it’s not a 2,000-word column. You’re done in six words, which makes it a very unscary thing to try. And then after you try it, you’re like, “Hey, I can do this…just like Dave Eggers or George Saunders, or Elizabeth Gilbert,” and then you get the bug. We’re a wordy culture, but if you’re forced to think about your life and you only have six words to do it, you really do take stock of who you are. It’s like a living epitaph.
Did you get more submissions about love, or about heartbreak?
By far and away more submissions on heartbreak than on love. I think that’s because it’s tough out there, and because we see more of a variety on heartbreak. With heartbreak, there’s more diversity. It’s like the old Tolstoy line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
What’s your favorite memoir in this collection?
One of my favorites, and I know it’s an absolutely true story because I happen to know the writer, is: “Monogamists meet at sex party. Marry.”
SMITH has a couple more six-word memoir books coming out. Any tips for writing one that’ll make it in?
First of all, honesty. The writer Daphne Merkin once told me in a class of hers I took, “Everyone can smell an unreliable narrator.” If you write true words, that will probably resonate with readers. Specificity is also good. “After Harvard, had baby with crackhead” is better than “After college he overdosed on drugs.” And I always say, don’t overthink it. If you don’t like, it, you can write six more words. So, write honestly, write truthfully, write specifically, and write quickly.
What’s your six-word memoir about love or heartbreak?
That’s going to open up a can of worms! It’s a two-part story. The first part is that my wife’s six-word memoir in the first book was this: “In and out of hot water.” My six-word memoir in the love book is: “Our prison visitations were surprisingly romantic.” My wife spent 13 months in federal prison, and I visited her every week. It wasn’t conjugal or anything — they don’t have that in federal prison — but seeing her in a visiting room for a three or four hours every week was weirdly romantic and brought us closer.
If you need another reason to check out Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak, two of The Frisky’s regular contributors, Judy McGuire and Rachel Kramer Bussel, have memoirs in the book!