Six-Word Memoirs a Hit at LBI Foundation of the Arts and SciencesSection Two
More than 100 people showed up at the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences in Loveladies on Wednesday night to meet Larry Smith, the award-winning author, editor and publisher of SMITH Magazine, who created the nationally celebrated Six-Word Memoir Project. While perusing the many imaginative memoir boxes displayed around the room that had been created by Stafford Intermediate School’s sixth-grade art class in partnership with LBIF and Smith himself, the crowd eagerly anticipated hearing Smith speak about his journey with the project. Among the masses were many of his long-time friends and family members who traveled from Moorestown, where Smith grew up, to greet his fans and display their loving support for his literary mission.
“You must be proud,” said LBIF’s public programs and membership coordinator Kristy Redford, after introducing herself to Smith’s father, Louis Smith.
“I’ll admit that he’s my son,” joked Smith. “We always try to come to his events,” he said, smiling.
A quiet hush panned over the jubilant gathering as Larry Smith took the stage and began sharing his experiences on the memoir project. Equipped with a telling PowerPoint presentation that showcased the life of the project, which was displayed in the art gallery on a large projector for all to see, he began telling the story of Ernest Hemingway, who had allegedly been challenged to write a story in just six words. Whether or not this legend is true, Smith said that as a journalist, he was always intrigued by the art and power of a six-word story.
“People have played off six words before, but no one had really said, ‘What’s the six-word story of your life?,’ which I called the ‘six-word memoir,’” he explained.
“Six-word memoirs are very magical. It’s easy to do many; it’s hard to do them well. But some people, of course, have a knack for it. It’s a low bar of entry to get in the game, to write, to say, ‘Hey, I tried this.’ And some of them are excellent,” he added.
After working many years as a journalist in the magazine industry, writing for Men’s Journal, The New York Times and Popular Science, among others, Smith said he wanted to create a magazine specifically for inspiring writers to create their stories and share them with others. He took his prototypes to many publishing houses, hoping to sell his idea, but none were really interested in his philosophy.
After many rejections, Smith decided to start the magazine online, where it wouldn’t cost him much to begin working on it. One day, while hard-pressed for something interactive to share with members of his online community, he said he decided to ask users to share their life story in six words. The narrative didn’t need to encompass a person’s entire life, but rather a pivotal or even ordinary piece of their existence. The next day, Smith said, he received 1,000 responses to his inquiry.
That was six years ago. Now, between SMITH Magazine and SMITH TEENS, a website just for adolescents, Smith said nearly 550,000 memoirs have been submitted.
“There’s over 50 (people) here, and there’s classrooms all over the world; I wonder if there’s been a million six-word memoirs written at games, at weddings – people do them for the bride and groom. I bet that there’s been a million, but I don’t know that. I know that on my site I have a counter, and I add up teens and adults, and it’s over half a million. So it’s pretty exciting,” Smith reminisced with enthusiasm.
Thus far, SMITH Magazine has published five books encompassing some of the most intriguing six-word memoirs submitted online, at seminars and even sent in via mail. The books feature all different kinds of personalities, nationalities, sexes and beliefs. Celebrities such as Steven Colbert, Nora Ephron and Dr. Mehmet Oz have also contributed to the project. And, of course, so have Smith’s friends and family members.
“We’ve watched this whole thing flower into a cottage industry,” said Amy Friedman, a childhood and family friend of Smith’s. “Every time he comes out with a new book, I write at least 15 new (memoirs),” she said, flipping to one of her published anecdotes in one of the project’s most recent books, titled It All Changed in an Instant.
Others in the crowd shared their memoirs during the event’s “six-word slam,” evoking oohs and ahhs from those around them. Amused laughter seized the group as one woman shared hers: “Breaking loose at 72; about time,” while a young boy stole their hearts after sharing his: “People seem to love my freckles.”
Stafford Intermediate’s sixth-grade art teacher, Jessica Gomez, and her participating students were applauded for their work featured around the room. The children’s projects each highlighted a specific moment from the previous school year, ranging in topic from music and art to field trips and family secrets. The projects were of all shapes and sizes and mediums. Some were held together by glue, others with tape or staples. Cardboard and papier-mâché were popular canvases.
Vinny Caprio’s project, titled “Flow: My twisted days at Stafford schools,” captured the essence of his school year, attending school dances and meeting tons of friends. Made out of duct tape, Styrofoam, tubing and paint, the project resembled a winding waterslide, which Caprio said he got a lot of enjoyment out of building.
“I love art because you can express yourself without having to write a paragraph. (The project) was a lot of fun to make,” he said, proudly standing next to his masterpiece.
“When the Foundation contacted me about the project, I really wanted the kids to come up with good memories they could use to enhance their art projects,” said Gomez. “I told them to really dig down for the weird and embarrassing stuff and let it shine. The kids wound up really getting into it and helping each other out. I think they did a great job,” she added, beaming with delight.
As the event came to a close, the crowd trickled out and the students took their projects home with them. But many stuck around for a bit, sharing their thoughts on the seminar and creating yet more six-word memoirs.
“(Larry Smith) is an amazing young man,” said Lisa Sokal of Barnegat Light. “His project really puts your life into perspective. He made me think about my own life, living with an autoimmune disease, and my own six-word memoir. To laugh about a disease or a tragic occurrence puts it in perspective because by then you’re already past it. I’m really glad I came out tonight,” she said, smiling ear to ear.
To learn more about the Six-Word Memoir Project, visit smithmag.net. For more information about the many special events occurring this summer at LBIF, visit lbifoundation.org, or call 609-494-1241.
— Kelley Anne Essinger