Sunday, January 21, 2018

Six Word Memoirs

I recently attended a reading by Larry Smith, he of the “Six Word Memoir” phenomenon, and I’ve been thinking in sixes ever since. 

If you’re not familiar with this concept, it started with the idea of a piece of sudden fiction.  Like this “novel,” told in just six words:

For sale:  Baby shoes.  Never worn.

Ernest Hemingway is often credited with this particularly powerful story, though it has not been verified that he actually wrote it.  Doesn’t matter, to my heart and mind; I’ve thought of this teeny-tiny story hundreds of times, and each time I do, my eyes get fizzy and my insides twist.  I imagine the face of the person selling the shoes; I go through all the events and feels that led up to the decision and the sale.

The six word memoir project grew from Smith’s commitment to it, starting with his first compilation titled Not Quite What I was Planning.  He has published several books since, each one filled with the six word memoirs of other people.  Two of my favorites are I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets, six-word memoirs written by teens, and Fresh Off the Boat:  Stories of Immigration, Identity, and Coming to America.   These books need digested slowly, carefully, sometimes just one or two at a time, because they force a depth of thought and imagination, and, more notably, oftentimes the text-to-self connections require a few minutes to breathe. 

Smith and his people have developed a delightful website, too, that highlights stories, contests, and profiles of the memoirists who found significant value in using their six words.  Be careful, though:  It is easy to sink deeply into the website and not come back up for a long time.  I know, because these things grab me by the throat and I get good and lost in reading them.

I love writing them, too, for the chapters of my so-far life.

The ones that flow easily are the sad ones, which is interesting to me, because I tend to slide old sadnesses into containers—with lids—because I know they would imprison me if I let them.  But those sadnesses come out easily in six-word increments.

Such as:

I never talk about the miscarriages.

My sister’s anger holds us hostage.

I’m habitually hamstrung by self-doubt.

My grandfather’s suicide lives beside me.

There are happy ones, too, the love letters to my life:

Sometimes I feel childhood joy, untethered.

This husband:  my wise, wise choice. 

Obliged to this precise, perfect life.

All is as it should be.

These children.  Smells, smiles, tears, triumphs.

The coexistence of these six-word stories in my one single life is a miracle of sorts.  How can struggle and angst live simultaneously with satisfaction and joy?  I don't know—but it does.

Okay.  So.  Connection to teaching and learning—?  Ah, yes. 

Mannnnnnnny teachers have incorporated the six-word memoir idea into their classroom.  It’s a natural and effective teaching tool, and heaps of teachers have used it, with good reason:  Having only six words forces you to tear away all the gobblygook that comes with writing, all the unnecessary phrases, sentences, and paragraphs that might gum up the message behind the essential words. 

It also forces careful consideration of punctuation.  No matter how hard we try, sometimes our six words don’t float along without help; they need some starts and stops and pauses to work correctly.  Suddenly, the power of a comma or semicolon takes on new meaning, because it enhances the connotation and significance of every.single.word.

Teachers can take a look at this site for a whole bunch of ideas, inspiration, and advice about making this project part of your teaching. 

What chapters of your life might beget a six-word summary? Are there ways students in your class might be able to study this concept? 

Because, after all... 

There is joy in writing well.

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