Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
How much do I love thee? Let me count the words.
The literature of love—from Ovid and Shakespeare to Pablo Neruda and Omar Khayyam—was written for millenia before text messages, microblogs and 140-character status updates. In our media-saturated, Adderall-soaked era, it's necessary to get to the point quickly, before the reader or listener loses interest. In fact, this paragraph has gone on so long that we forgot what we were planning to say.
Enter Larry Smith, former Metro editor. (See how powerful six words are?) Taking inspiration from Ernest Hemingway, Smith crafted a new genre that's being described as "American haiku."
In the late 1920s, Hemingway — already famous for his brevity — ostensibly composed his shortest story. It went: "For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn."
While brainstorming ideas for his online magazine "Smith," Smith and co-editor Rachel Fershleiser (who thankfully has not named a magazine after herself) crafted the concept of fixed-length memoirs. Now a fixture on New York Times and Amazon best-seller lists, it's sweet redemption for the former Bay Area journalist who moved to New York and drafted a business plan for a print magazine that never made it past the prototype stage. Its mission was to champion everyman, the Smiths of the world, with the slogan: "Everybody's got a story. What's yours?"
Since the capital-intensive magazine launch eluded him, Smith took his magazine to the Internet. Smith had marinated in web culture during the dotcom boom, worked as web editor for Metro's Boulevards subsidiary and as an editor at Yahoo Internet Life magazine. The micromemoir seemed a perfect fit for the online magazine, and the "manuscripts" could be submitted through a simple web form at smithmag.net.
"We created the site as a populist place for storytelling—a place for reader-contributed stories," Smith says, "and we guessed this would open things up."
They seeded the six-word project with the short work of some famous friends, including Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), adventure journalist Sebastian Junger (A Perfect Storm) and "young adult" novelist Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Smith also invited readers to contribute, and they did—by the thousands.
Not surprisingly, the idea caught the imaginations of bloggers and traditional journalists. That led to a book. The first six-word collection, Not Quite What I Was Planning, collected 1,000 of the stories. It also included some celebrity contributors, including Eggers, Stephen Colbert, Richard Ford and Aimee Mann. And the book took off. The first-run printing of 10,000 sold out in weeks, so Smith ordered a second run. And five more after that.
Critics also loved the book. Rave reviews ran in major newspapers and magazines—many, of course, under six-word headlines. The New York Post: "Love and lust in a nutshell." Vanity Fair: "Will thrill minimalists and inspire maximalists." The New Yorker: "Say It All in Just Six Words." (That column, by Lizzie Widdicombe, is written entirely in six-word sentences.)
The critical acclaim no doubt results from the uncanny depth and impact of the tiny stories. The gimmick seems to be that there's something powerful about a memoir that gets right to the point. Smith says he is still amazed that so much emotion can be packed into so little space.
"We thought it would all be fun and funny," he says. "But it was intense."
Many of the stories in the original volume, Smith says, dealt with love and heartbreak, so he and Fershleiser agreed that would be the focus of the inevitable follow-up. That book, Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak (published by Harper Perennial) may be even more powerful than the first, which is why these excerpts, abetted by some of our own local writers, are so perfect for Valentine's Day.
On the telephone last week, following a reading, Smith said he continues to be amazed at how much people can squeeze into six words. Every reading turns into a story-sharing session, he says, and almost every time, something profound happens.
Not surprisingly, he has committed several of his favorites to memory. He describes a reading at a high school in Manhattan, where one kid offered the following: "Fat camp makes kids fatter." Another contributed this: "I think your mom is hot." He tells of visiting a second-grade class where a little girl, asked to tell her life story in six words, said: "Nine years stacked in my soul."
Two years and two books after the six-word idea was hatched, Smith says he feels mostly lucky about the project's success. His six-word memoir: "Threw spaghetti at wall. Some stuck."SMITH Magazine video
Real Short Story Writers
He still needs me at sixty-four.
Armistead Maupin, novelist, Tales of the City
Our song: Pat Benatar's 'We Belong.'
Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, author, A Series of Unfortunate Events
It's just a matter of luck.
Ayelet Waldman, novelist, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits
May I have the last dance?
Robert Hass, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet, former U.S. Poet Laureate
Job requires me to contemplate cunnilingus.
Dan Savage, Sex columnist, The (Seattle) Stranger
Everyone's crazy except you and me.
Mark Frauenfelder, co-editor, BoingBoing
Let's live on an island together.
Carla Sinclair, co-editor, BoingBoing
Strange relationship, we both wore dresses.
Someone should have objected at my wedding.
Cynthia Ceilan, author, Thinning the Herd: Tales of the Weirdly Departed
Sorry, it was the Paxil talking.
Sam Seder, comedian
Engaged in Jerusalem. Thank you, God.
Lynn Harris, author, Death by Chick Lit
We'll break up before this prints.
Porochista Khakpour, author, Sons and Other Flammable Objects
A short affair but pure lust.
Spencer Wendt, serial entrepreneur
He posted our sex tape online.
Lauran Strait, editor, Bewildering Stories
Leg man trapped inside of breast man.
Previously Unheard Voices
Although the Six-Word Memoirs have showcased some professional artists, the vast majority of the pieces—and some of the best—come from folks who submitted their work to Smithmag.net.
Lovesick. 1985. Suicide by Pop Rocks.
Massage parlor breeds heir of adultery.
Tried men. Tried women. Like cats.
Erectile dysfunction doesn't kill true love.
Only once. It was a doozy.
Monogamists meet at sex party. Marry.
Wanted a wife. Got a cat.
He lied, cheated, left; bestselling memoir.
We can share secrets and bras.
She got back on the Vespa.
I never said I wanted this.
The Tales Go On Forever Short
Smithmag.net has a six-word slogan at the top of its homepage: "Everyone has a story. What's yours?" As its second book hits the streets, the site continues to invite readers to submit their Six Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak. Below are a handful.
He still has my favorite book.
Dumb at 18; married a fool.
Love rejected is still, painfully, love.
Years later. I remembered. She forgot.
He thought they were happy tears.
Blonder, younger, richer, not quite me.
He promised to be faithful. Oops.
Married for peace. Miss the war.
He married an Italian model. Tortura.
I lost her, then found vodka.
Her scent is still here haunting.
His ex-wife's French. I'm North Dakotan.
He made me cry, never scream.
Passionately, you yelled ... not my name.
I never put myself first. Error.
Chlamydia, the doctor said. He cheated.
Valentine's Day, how I loathe thee.
I'm (apparently) only attracted to jerks.
Today's list: cook, clean, fuck, vomit.
Mary Ann Kohenskey
Luminaries Metro invited some Silicon Valley writers and others to share their brief tales of romance and pain.
In this economy, divorce is unthinkable.
Persis Karim, associate professor of English and comparative literature, San Jose State University
Loved a man, then a woman.
Kate Evans, novelist (For the May Queen), professor of creative writing, San Jose State University
It was nothing $3,500 wouldn't fix.
Richard von Busack, staff writer, Metro Silicon Valley
I really love ... my drum sticks.
Tamara Alvarado, 1stACT Silicon Valley
Sweet then sour. Sad, lost youths.
Robert Emmett, Norman Bates Memorial Soundtrack Show, KFJC
She met him just in time.
Sandra Gilbert, poet (Belongings) and author (Death's Door)
He had been all she wanted.
Nobody's girl. Find me a you.
Mary Kennedy Eastham, Author, The Shadow of a Dog I Can't Forget
Happily finding a bicycle-riding fish.
Sam Liccardo, San Jose City Councilmember
Budget unbalanced. California failure. Broken heart.
Chuck Reed, mayor of San Jose
Going straight to campaign spouse heaven.
Dolores Carr, district attorney, Santa Clara County
Elected Obama; got Geithner and Gates.
American liberals who fell in love and feel burned.
Heathcliff and Cathy, less is moors.
Emily Brontė II
Pyramis, Thisbe—tear down this wall.
Ovid the Much Younger
Slice? Nice. T.V. That's Me! We
Met through the Internet—we clicked.
Laura Jump, former Metro Design Director
First kiss ... decades later—still bliss.
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