Thursday, November 25th, 2010
Just before Thanksgiving four years ago, SMITH’s tiny, part-time team, consisting of co-founder, Tim Barkow, and senior editor, Rachel Fershleiser (pictured here at our book launch party with Summer Grimes, whose six-worder, “Not quite what I was planning,” became the book’s title, not to mention soul of a story told in six-word sentences in The New Yorker), and I quietly tossed out a challenge to the SMITH Magazine community: “How would you describe your life in exactly six words?” Our challenge was a personal twist on the legendary Hemingway six-word novel (”For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) which we dubbed the Six-Word Memoir (appropriate for a site about memoir, after all). You can see our rather scrappy inaugural Six-Word Memoir project design (above) from 2006.
When I went home for the holiday, I remember telling my family about the latest spaghetti we’d thrown at the proverbial SMITH Mag wall, and then watching as something fascinating unfolded: everyone started sharing Six-Word Memoirs at the table. The youngest member of my family and the oldest alike came up with sixes. The most writerly and least likely to crack a book both got the bug. Among three generations, and various attitudes and aptitudes, anyone could write a Six-Word Memoir—and everyone loved hearing what others came up with. Hmmmm, I thought, this might work.
Back then, if you submitted a Six-Word Memoir, it went to my personal email. When I realized, upon logging back in that Friday morning, that I had 1000+ unread messages, it was clear the Turkey Day enthusiasm was no fluke. We quickly switched up the technology so the submissions went straight to the site, both to save my in-box and so everyone could see this torrent of self-expression. Then our server crashed. Upon rebooting, we were greeted by this six-worder by the kind of community member we were rapidly falling in love with: “Down for maintenance, be back soon.”
In my first post a few days after the project launched (a post that surely deserves a tiny corner of an Internet time capsule), I explained how the challenge/contest worked.
If you sign up for a free service from a cool new company called Twitter, you’ll get the memoir-of-the day, sent straight to your cell phone for the duration of the contest. Big fun, plus everyone who submits a six-word life story and also signs up for Twitter is eligible to win an iPod.
The challenge was meant to last a month. In a secret ballot by a dozen or so friends of SMITH, “Barrister, barista, what’s the diff, Mom?” by Abigail Moorhouse (a former café worker turned Silicon Valley engineer) was named the best of the bunch.
Things have worked out well for Twitter, and one hopes Abigail, while the Six-Word Memoir project also turned out to exceed our plans and expectations, too. In the past four years, visitors to the site have submitted 350,000+ Six-Word Memoirs to SMITH, and a site we later launched for our younger storytellers, the absolutely brilliant and bananas, SMITH Teens (a small flavor of which is in the above screengrab).
We’ve made five books of some of the best (including one in Japanese), and will have a calendar out in 2012, with a board game in the works. Best of all, we’ve engaged in collaborations with organizations such as Bono’s One.org, the youth nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms, and, mostly recently, the veterans group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. The form has provided inspiration for schools and hospitals, churches and synagogues; we’ve seen six-words pop up in suicide prevention centers and speed dating sessions, eulogies and spinning classes, hacker conferences and RV blogs, and the occasional situation so surprising we’re not sure how to categorize it (here’s a two-word hint: “vagina haiku.”)
In short, the Six-Word Memoir project has taken on a life we could have never imagined, while manifesting SMITH Mag’s mission in exactly the way we had: a place for inspired, thoughtful, funny, authentic, and addictive storytelling.