"Found Jewish princess. Good-bye succulent pork." “One small Jew, one loud family." "Overstuffing is part of my aesthetic." Sound familiar? These six-words clippets are cute, but they're also very deliberate. The man responsible for them is Larry Smith, the founder of SMITH Magazine, home of the six-word memoir project, which cuts right to the highly concentrated heart of storytelling. While six-word memoirs can, and have, covered just about every topic on the planet, one very specific topic is coming to life tomorrow night at 92YTribeca: the Jewish experience. Dubbed "Oy! Only Six? Why Not More?", the event, presented in conjunction with Tablet and Reboot, features six-minute stories from author Walter Mosely, humorist Zev Borow and actor Nick Blaemirem, and many more. We spoke to founder/editor Larry Smith about how to tell a good story, the Internet, and strange Jewish foods.
What's the history behind the Six Word Memoir? Why six words? In fall 2006, a big project on SMITHmag.net in which two twentysomethings would videoblogged their way around the country meeting all their online-only friends imploded on day four. Total train wreck, it completely fell apart. Totally desperate, my co-editor Rachel Fershleiser and I starting kicking around a half-baked an idea based on the literary legend that Hemingway was once challenged to write a whole novel in just six words. According to the legend, he wrote, "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
We always liked that, but we’re living in a confessional, voyeuristic age, and doing memoirs seemed like the logical evolution. We googled “Six-Word Memoir,” it hadn’t been done, and were off and running. It caught on through the peculiar magic of the web—we partnered with Twitter and their audience is people who like to write short messages and broadcast them. Then it was blogged to death and emailed around. In a few weeks, we had thousands of submissions, and we heard that teachers were assigning six-word memoirs to their students, families were trading them across dinner tables, and pet fanatics were writing them for their dogs.
Now, as the Six-Word Memoir project approaches its fifth anniversary in November, more than half a million Six-Word Memoirs have been posted on SMITH and a second site, SMITH Teens. We have a bestselling books series (including a recent Japanese translation) with Harper Perennial, a board game from University Games that’s just about to hit stores, and a fun and inspirational phenom that’s spread to classrooms and boardrooms, veterans’ groups and speed-dating sessions.
What are your tips for good storytelling? I suggest lots of things: a story with a compelling narrative arc (“Ex-wife and contractor now have house”); a sentiment that’s at once personal and universal (“Caring for parents. Life is circular”); words that feel honest (“Worried the dog liked him better”); and it’s always good to have a laugh at yourself (“One tooth, one cavity, life’s cruel.”). Be specific, be honest, write like you talk, experiment with structure, tell a story, and be yourself.
For tomorrow's event, why did you choose the "6 Words on Jewish Life" theme? What other themes have you done in the past? This year we’ve done four shows at the 92YTribeca: love/heartbreak; parents/parenting; summer; and now the Jewish life, right before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time when Jews are both thinking about their own relationship to Judaism and non-Jews are trying to make sense of Jewish people doing strange things like eating gefilte fish and fasting. Plus, if you’ve lived in New York for a while, you’re sort of an honorary Jew. You definitely don’t have to be Jewish to love the show.
How did you choose participants? Our process and mix for a Six-Word Story Show is similar to the way we create a Six-Word Memoir book— seeking out a combo of famous storytellers, somewhat known storytellers, and then one complete unknown person who shares Six Words on the show’s topic on our Facebook Event page and is chosen to join the other storytellers on the stage. So on September 21, Walter Mosley, a guy who’s written 34 books, won a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award, will tell a story based on his Six-Word Memoir on the Jewish Life (he’ll be talking about being black and Jewish); a few minutes later Elissa Goldstein, a student living in Brooklyn will take the stage and tell her story (it’s about eating Kangaroo meat—not kosher!) And everyone—whether bestselling author or unpublished student gets six minutes max. It’s all part of SMITH Mag’s populist vibe: the storytelling playing field should be a level one. On that note, every show we do ends in a Six-Word Slam, where anyone in the audience can share his or her own Six-Word Memoir.
We also always have people from the world or theater and music, which are specialties of my co-producer Ashley Van Buren. For the Jewish Life show, she’s brought musician Nick Blaemire. And how the musicians interpret telling a backstory to Six-Word Memoir is always a blast to watch in action:
Describe the event in 6 words: I think the show’s title says it all: “Oy! Only Six? Why Not More?” If you’re not sure why those six words are both a painfully true and totally funny expression of the Jewish experience, ask a Jew. We like to talk.