Tuesday, June 17th, 2008
by Elizabeth Minkel
Last February, just as Not Quite What I Was Planning started climbing towards the bestseller list, a blogger named BookBabie seized on the internet potential of the six-word memoir. After all, the whole project has been an online venture from the start; the fact that anyone can submit a super-short life story quickly and easily is part of what makes the concept so much fun. BookBabie turned the challenge into a meme, the blogging world’s equivalent of a chain letter (though you won’t be cursed with eternal bad luck if you fail to pass one on). The meme asked participants to write their own six-word memoirs and tag (embed a link to someone else’s blog) five friends. Today, just four months later, a google search of the term “six-word memoir” yields more than 350,000 results. I think it would be fair to say that a good portion of those are thanks to the meme.
When I started as a SMITH intern in March, I was given just one task as I boarded a plane for San Francisco: put a google alert on the term “six-word memoir” and keep an eye on things. “Comment on the good ones,” Larry told me. “But try not to look like you’re spamming them.” Maintaining that fine line between genuine appreciation and shameless self-promotion was pretty tricky, but I got a big boost of confidence when one of my first bloggers wrote back with thanks. A few days later, a woman I had complimented was so pleased that she wrote an entirely new post to draw attention to it. “How cool is that?!?” she asked as she quoted my comment. I guess it was pretty cool; if there’s one thing I’d rather have than good feedback, it’s good feedback from a complete stranger.
As the meme spread across the internet, I started to notice some clear patterns. I’d never given much thought to the way the blogging world worked; it didn’t occur to me that niche bloggers—mothers, runners, cooks, Christians, nature-lovers—often make online friendships within those niches. I watched the meme work its way through the well-organized mom blogosphere and into the ultra-organized fitness-mom blogosphere. I really started to notice the circular nature of the meme when it hit the finance blogs (“Saving sense to save my cents”), which seemed to encompass everyone from high-powered investment bankers to relatively humble get-out-of-debt columnists. When the bird watchers got their hands on it, the resulting memoirs were short, sweet, and accompanied by pictures of birds (“Birds, an essential part of life”). Even animals themselves joined in. Granted, theirs were a little more straightforward, like “EXCITED TO LOVE, EAT, PLAY, SNUGGLE!” from a three-year-old pug named Jemima Jones.
The tag itself is like the world’s biggest game of telephone. Ernest Hemingway was bet that he couldn’t write a story in six words, and SMITH put a memoir twist on the old legend. But as the meme worked its way across the internet, a good number of readers decided that “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” was Hemingway’s life story. In March, people tried to trace the origins of the meme with little success, pointing fingers at half a dozen bloggers. In recent weeks, people have started attaching Larry and Rachel’s names to the tag. No mention of SMITH, but then, that’s my job, after all. If you search my inbox for the term “six word memoir,” it says “displaying results 1-20 out of hundreds.” Gmail doesn’t even bother counting anymore. Sometimes the alerts seem like cosmic jokes. Just a few days ago, it sent me two new memoirs: one from a Muslim whose blog tag-line was “O Allah increase me in knowledge, amin,” and one from a Jew living in Israel who proudly displayed a little banner with the Israeli and American flags and the words “I support disproportionate force.” That might be one problem the blogosphere isn’t equipped to solve.
My six-word tastes run towards the cynical. As we hunt for thoughts on love and heartbreak, I generally prefer “Lost virginity and earring in backseat ” to “I never stopped waiting for love.” But as I searched the blogosphere, I wasn’t drawn to the funny ones. There are so many people out there using writing to work through tragedy and pain, and for some, distilling all that into six words is an incredibly powerful experience. Just the other day I noticed, “Her prescription came with unlimited refills,” a runner’s summary of her debilitating injury. After thousands of memoirs, I’d have to say that my absolute favorites are the simple ones that seem to sum up entire lives. Three months later, I still remember, “Quiet late bloomer, still quietly blooming.”
Have you been tagged yet? If not, consider this an official invitation. Just be sure to pass it on. I’ve started to notice the meme in other languages—yesterday I puzzled through a Portuguese one with Babelfish. I hope this trend continues; I won’t be satisfied until everyone in the world has shared their six words.