Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Six-Word Obsession

Do you remember when we were growing up, and at the beginning of each school year, the (usually) well-intentioned teacher would ask us to write about our summer vacations? Well, what if he or she instead asked for a six-word summation of the summer? Just imagine how creative we’d have been.

Ever since my interview with Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser from SMITH magazine about their book I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets, I have become, well, obsessed with six-word phrases that sum up a situation. (SMITH is an online writing community; founder Larry Smith was inspired by the legend that Ernest Hemingway once wrote a six-word short story, and challenged his community members to write six-word memoirs.) On SMITH’s Web site, they showcase a New Jersey teacher, Mrs. Nelson, and her class of third graders who created a book of extraordinary reflections captured in half a dozen words. Mrs. Nelson and her students have proven that children of all ages can stretch themselves while also having a lot of fun with these six-word puzzles.

Last month, I was visiting my friend Joanne and her two daughters, ages seven and 12. After I explained to both of them the concept of the six-word memoir, they each had a go of it. One of my favorites penned by the seven-year-old was a description of her grandfather, whom she’d recently visited: “Sleep all day, snore all night.” The 12-year-old, anticipating the start of school, came up with this gem: “Grade system: A, B, and flunk.” Throughout my three-day visit, I would notice long silent pauses from the girls, and glance over to see their fingers going as they counted off how many words were contained in the phrases in their heads.

Joanne urged me to pass on the six-word phrase I coined for the advice I was given my first year in the classroom: “Teachers should not smile before Christmas.” The irony: that advice came from a third-grade teacher with a soft spot for bullies and naughty boys. Every year she inspired them to do their best work, and they often emerged from her classroom as bigger and better people. (As if it were a New Year's resolution, she started smiling each January.) I won’t reveal her identity here. After all, it’s the start of a new school year, and those bullies only have until Christmas to shape up.

Meanwhile, here are six great writing tips that editor Rachel Fershleiser adapted for teens….


By Rachel Fershleiser

1. Be specific. "Homecoming king with a septum ring" says more than just "punk but popular"; "We are banned from Wal-Mart forever"—not just "my family is embarrassing."

2. Be honest. Many of the most interesting memoirs are so raw ("First time hazy. Blame the booze"; "Hung myself. Sister found me. Alive") I'd personally be too chicken to put my name on them.

3. Forget the thesaurus: Choose interesting words, but only ones that come naturally to you.

4. Use your speaking voice: With "Got three sisters and two dads" and "Hair’s pink to piss you off" you can hear them saying it.

5. Experiment with structure. Two three-word sentences. Three two-word sentences. One statement or six separate ones. Repetition can be powerful and punctuation is our friend: "Fat camp makes fat campers fatter"; "Never been drunk. Never been happier."

6. Stop trying so hard. Or "Write carelessly; edit carefully." Throw a million ideas down and then decide. These aren't epic novels or Supreme Court decisions. Just start scribbling and see what catches your eye. In our experience, peoples' first instincts are usually the best.


  1. What a great idea! This reminds me of The Washington Post's Life As Haiku: autobiography in verse (in the Sunday style section). You were to capture a snippet of your life in 100 words or less. Every week, it was the first thing I'd turn to.

    It's amazing what moments look like boiled down to a few words. I probably entered a dozen times, though was never published. No matter, the experience was a good one.

    I've finished When You Reach Me, by the way. It was stunning. You must read Owen Meany and report back to me!

  2. Caroline! Great to hear from you.

    I don't know if you're a Shelf Awareness ( subscriber or not (you'd enjoy it, I think, being the avid reader that you are; many publishers offer ARC giveaways to the first responders), but the Book Brahmin today mentioned A WRINKLE IN TIME. WHEN YOU REACH ME added to my experience of the book -- I reread it because of Rebecca Stead.

    OK, will report back after Owen Meany.