Monday, December 5th, 2011
A message from a site called Twitter Birthday tweeted to me, naturally, reminded me that SMITH Mag has been on Twitter since November 16, 2006. What was going on back then? I had joined this oddball little site in anticipation of running a one-month contest called “What’s your Six-Word Memoir?” in collaboration with some guys I had met at a tech conference. Their company was called Twittr (no “e” back then) and they also had a fondness for the short form.
And so it was that just before Thanksgiving in 2006, SMITH’s 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 and featured in a story 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. (Read more about what happened at the Thanksgiving table in last year’s anniversary post.)
Our challenge was meant to last a month, at which point we declared former café worker turned Silicon Valley engineer Abigail Moorhouse the winner for her poetic, “Barrister, barista, what’s the diff, Mom?” About a year later, we published the first of our books with Harper Perennial, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.
What’s happened since those first memoirs started pouring in and that first book received so much attention is indeed not what we were planning. We’ve had more than half a million Six-Word Memoirs shared on SMITH and a second site, the incredible SMITH Teens. We’ve published seven books so far, including the just-released Six Words About Work and the forthcoming Six Words on the Jewish Life. A Japanese publishing company has put out a gorgeous edition in which the Japanese translations sit below the English Six-Word Memoir as a way for Japanese speakers to learn idiomatic English. We’ve created other offshoots as well, including a calendar, board game and T-shirts—products abiding, I believe, by our mission only to create products that are of a piece with SMITH’s mission to encourage self-expression and catalyze conversation. We hype ‘em all in our 2011 gift guide.
Best of all, we’ve engaged in collaborations with organizations such as the youth nonprofit To Write Love on Her Arms, the veterans group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and classrooms across the world (such as the amazing crew at the Bushwick-based Still Waters in a Storm, pictured above, who turned this blank blackboard into a torrent of self-expression). Each day Google Alerts reveal the witty and wonderful ways others employ the form, from a Rubik’s Cube comprised of a Six-Word Memoir to a food truck holding impromptu six-word slams.
This simple form may be adapted by SMITH from Hemingway, but the breadth and depth of what Six-Word Memoirs have achieved are due to the amazing community of storytellers on SMITH—an amazing and merry band of Loons and Poets—and far beyond the borders of this site. In a talk I gave at the technology and innovation conference PopTech (embedded, above), I tell the story of six and its magical manifestations as well as I ever have.
I started SMITH because I wanted to create a new kind of magazine, one powered by the stories of real people who wanted to give writing a shot and perhaps weren’t sure how or where to start. What I’ve learned in nearly six years of doing this site and five years of the Six-Word Memoir project is that it’s not a magazine at all, but rather a community. It’s a community fulfilling SMITH Mag’s mission in exactly the way I had hoped: a place where the storytelling playing field is a level one, and self-expression has no limits at all.