Writing Our Lives in 6 Words

Distilling important aspects of daily life during unprecedented times.

Posted May 12, 2020

As a founding editor of SMITH Magazine in 2006, Larry Smith proposed the idea of six-word memoirs as one way for people to express their life stories. The memoirs were meant as interpretations and distillations of one’s life from the ground level – in six words. The first book of these memoirs is entitled Not Quite What I Was Planning.

The six-word memoir took its cue from the novelist Ernest Hemingway. When challenged in a bar to write a story in only six words, he wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Taking off from that, Larry Smith offered the idea of memoirs in six words. The response was immediate and voluminous. To date, the six-word memoir has resulted in more than a dozen books and has been applied in many ways and settings – with children and adults, in public schools and state prisons, in businesses and religious institutions, with veterans groups, as exercises in writing programs, as promotions of social awareness, as protest. 

Source: commons.wikimedia

Why do six-word memoirs work so well? From the standpoint of memory, six-word memoirs are within the capacity of short-term memory.  They can be thought about easily, and once created, they are apprehended immediately and remembered. We know and feel the rhythm of six. Eight words is too many. Fewer words could be tried, but six seems the minimum for satisfying expression. It permits the comparison or clash of two ideas: “Lost a mother, became a mother.” It allows the observational to resonate: “Sounded much better in my head.” Children take to six-word memoirs naturally. A third-grader in a class taught by Larry Smith summarized her secret to survival in a hard world: “Look mean. Be nice to everyone.” (Advice that was particularly appropriate when Smith presented it during a class at a correctional institution.)

The six-word memoir allows just enough revelation to communicate but not so much to belabor. Reserved people find it welcoming; talkative people appreciate the discipline; preoccupied people enjoy the spontaneous escape. 

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Many of us are now wondering what we will remember from these times – the daily isolation, the threat of serious illness, the stress on health care providers, the concerns for family, the loss of jobs. Keeping a journal works well to document personal observations, but for those who don’t maintain a journal, six-word memoirs provide some of the same benefits – recording daily thoughts and feelings – but with more brevity and focus. They can be poetic or flatly descriptive, profound or perceptive. They can evoke humor or pathos – whatever feels genuine.  Here are four recent examples:  

            Humbling how no one misses me.

            Is it too early to drink? 

            Must I care about my hair?

            We will never be the same.