Friday, January 6th, 2012
Six years ago, on January 6, 2006, I launched SMITH Magazine. It was about time.
For three years prior, I wandered in the media desert, looking for funding or a fancy publishing partner. I got meetings because I had been working in magazines for a while and had a prototype created by legendary art director Robert Priest (whose SMITH logo still graces these pages today). I preached the gospel of what I called, “A new kind of magazine, a print/web hybrid that would be written by everyone and edited by professionals.” And then I was shown the door.
What to do? It was time to stop looking up and start looking around, as well as inward. My co-founder was my old college buddy, Tim Barkow, who frequently reminded me that we’d never create something new if we attempted to do so the old way, with the old rules. Inventive independent media makers like Dave Eggers, Shoshana Berger, Deanna Brown, and Lisa Haines all said the same thing: just do it, dude. And so we did. On January 6, 2006, National Smith Day (a day which existed already in honor of John Smith, one of the early Jamestown, Va., settlers, and/or 19th century mountaineer Jedediah Smith), we launched SMITH online.
I handled the content and editing. Tim programmed and designed the site from scratch with the help of Wordpress, the platform we still use. Our friend, Alex Hart, gave us free server space, because he’s the kind of guy who has server space. Lisa guided as we we started to turn a passion into a viable business proposition. Rachel Fershleiser later joined and became my incredible Six-Word Memoir co-editor. Jeff Newelt, aka JAHFurry, brought comics to SMITH, further expanding the ways we could tell stories here. Along the way, to crib from one six-worder I love, “Many hands have kept us afloat.” *
In previous posts I recount our origin and our mission, but the short story is that SMITH was inspired by my grandfather, a small-town pharmacist who knew everyone else’s story but was notably shy when discussing his own. When I asked him to tell me the story of his life, he said, “Oh, my story, who would care about that?” So I tricked him. I told him I wanted to test my new video camera—”Just tell one story about coming over from Russia when you were three” —and then he didn’t stop talking for hours. So came my “aha! moment”: Everyone has a story, you just have to remember to ask. That’s our origin story, one I love, and recount (along with the history of the Six-Word Memoir project) in a talk I gave at PopTech in 2010.
We’ve been asking for six years now. Our Six-Word Memoir project has been wildly popular, with more than half a million six-worders on SMITH and our site for younger scribes, SMITH Teens. We’ve seen Six-Word Memoirs used as a teaching tool across the world, as an ice breaker in speed dating sessions and suicide prevention groups alike, on bottle caps and in company mission statements. Along the way, we’ve published five books of Six-Word Memoirs, as well as a UK and a Japanese edition, and a sixth homegrown book, Six Words on the Jewish Life coming in March, 2012. A number of ambitious comic projects, including A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge and The Pekar Project sprung from this site. This year saw the release of our Six-Word Memoir Calendar and Six Word Game, a partnership with the consulting company Mercer for “Six Words About Work,” a wild ad campaign with MINI Cooper, and a live event series at the 92YTribeca. We just released a book that’s comprised of more than six words, The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure.
Ultimately, SMITH is just one thing above all else: a community. In six words and more this community shares stories with honesty, humor, grace and passion each day. As a SMITH member who goes by the name MrsPremise wrote in a comment recently, “I love this community, the books are the bonus.” I could not agree more.
As such I’ll leave this anniversary post with a sentiment that I was truly floored to hear waft through the airwaves as I finished up a segment on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” just a few days ago, where I was invited to talk about The Moment book. Here’s the transcript:
NEAL CONAN: We’ll end with this email from Laureatte, and she writes: “Greetings from Shady Valley, Tennessee, home of a SMITH mag member. Who would have thunk? That’s the beauty of SMITH Magazine and its projects like “The Moment.” Bits and pieces of lives from all over the globe transform into words, and go on to touch the lives of others. It’s truly a democratic phenomena, accessible to anyone. Sharing important moments from our lives is what we all long to do. We’re all encouraged by projects like “The Moment.”
I’m encouraged, inspired and grateful for a community that does amazing things in six words and so many more. Happy SMITH day to us all.
*Among those hands is the SMITH community member who voluntarily copyedits our blog—thanks, Leigh!
Photos: Six image (top) by Bert Rodriguez, The Rubell Collection. Thanks to @lizziewurtzel for the six.