NEAL CONAN, HOST:
In a new book called "The Moment," the title of many of the essays says it all: "The Thin Envelope," "The First Kiss." Photographer John B. Carnett entitled his moment, "Birth."
JOHN B. CARNETT: (Reading) As a photographer, I'd always insulated myself against the world. The camera is the buffer. That's something between myself and the moment in front of me: the wind, the cold, the gesture. The reality of the moment is frozen for that fraction of time that the camera converts 3-D space to 2-D. It happens so fast and so often, it's a place in which I'm quite comfortable. But all those moments of buffered conversion are actually lost moments of real time. I'm not present.
Only later, when the image is processed, does the moment return; that place where I was, the very moment that I was absent reappears. When my first son, Quint(ph), was born, I had my camera and made this picture. When my second son, Henry(ph), was born, I owned the moment itself.
CONAN: One of 125 life-changing stories, collected in a new book called "The Moment." If there's a moment that changed your life, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Larry Smith started to publish these stories in Smith magazine. He's the founding editor there, and he joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.
LARRY SMITH: Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And you and Smith magazine are probably best known for the "Six-Word Memoir" series. When did you decide six words were no longer enough?
SMITH: You know, at Smith magazine, it's all about personal storytelling. And when we came up with the six-word prompt a few years ago, it worked really well. But we have other prompts on the site, and it just seemed like people did want to write longer. So we threw this out. What's a moment that would - that changed your life; the instant, a moment of clarity, something that happened to you physically or mentally. And we didn't know what we would get.
CONAN: And it's interesting - a lot of your correspondents, you say in your introduction, say: These are stories I never told anybody.
SMITH: That's right. And there's something about this book - you know, it's a whole range of stories; famous writers, folks who've never so much sent a letter into the newspaper before. And I think that when you release a moment, when you write a moment, it's a little different than a secret. You give it out to the world, and you also do something to yourself by letting it go. But a secret is meant to sort of not be shared, and a moment is meant to be shared and discussed. And it's this conversation-starter. You read the book, and you can only ask one question to your friends or family across the dinner table: What's your moment?
CONAN: And it's interesting - you say 125 writers and artists; some famous, some not, some the founding editor of Smith magazine.
SMITH: Well, that's true. I mean, my moment - I talk about it in the introduction just a little bit - and I had a couple of different moments, including the day the Phillies won the baseball World Series for the first time, and I was there. And my wife said: Come on, Larry. You've got to give it up. That's what you asked other people to do. So I wrote a very personal moment about an eating disorder I had in high school that I've never talked about publicly, even to some of my closest friends. And I, you know, I gave a little part of myself. And it's really - you know, it's not easy, but I think ultimately, it's helpful.
CONAN: I particularly was interested in the three-pound weights you hid in your pants.
SMITH: Well, you know, you try to put these things away from you, and so many of the stories in this book are about things that happened when writers - and they're now some 40s, 50s and their 60s - were teenagers, some 6 or 7. Elizabeth Gilbert talks about being about 5 years old and overhearing her parents talk like adults. And her moment at 5, which was both scary and awful, was, oh, my God; my parents have lives outside of taking care of me. And you know, Elizabeth Gilbert has traveled the world and written about so many amazing moments. But 5 years old - it sort of set her worldview in motion.
CONAN: I was taken by the story Kimberly Rose wrote, called "Photo Finish," where she gets a packet of photographs her husband had taken at her daughter's 2-year-old birthday party and realized she was in none of them, and had not been in any pictures her husband had taken since they were married; that he didn't love her and never did.
SMITH: So Kimberly Rose is why I started Smith magazine. She saw this prompt - who knows where - on Facebook, a newsletter - not a professional writer, and she decides to think about a moment that changed her life. And it's this - she's sitting outside of a like, CVS Pharmacy, opening up these pictures that she was picking up from the family camera. And she realizes she is not part of her husband's life, part of the story. There's no pictures of her. And at that moment, she decides she needed to get a divorce. And there's a great ending in that story, which is that she then gets some professional photos taken of herself, and she just looks at those photos and feels like, I did it. I changed my life.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'd like to hear about your moment. Again, it's 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Kit, and Kit's on with us from Boone, North Carolina.
KIT: Hi there. Happy New Year.
CONAN: Happy New Year.
KIT: So the moment that changed my life - and it's five words, not six - but it was the day that my husband was killed. And he had been extraordinarily abusive, and my boys and I were pretty trapped, living in the North Carolina mountains. And I'll never forget - ever - getting the phone call, and then the notice from the sheriff's department that he was dead. And really, for the first time, understanding what gravity was all about because I felt that I should just fly away. It was just amazing.
He's been dead now for 31 years. And for the last 28 years, I've worked in - battered women's movement. And so I just have this, you know, 28 years of working with women who also have experienced this kind of acute and intimate oppression. And so, you know, I just - you know, the day he died, it changed my life. It gave me my freedom. It gave me the opportunity to do work that I just absolutely love. And it's, you know, it's - the whole thing has been astonishing.
CONAN: No regrets at all?
KIT: No. Well, I mean, you know, there's regrets, but he was a dangerous and troubled man. And I'm quite convinced that if he hadn't have died, that it wouldn't have been too much longer before he would have killed me. And so all in all, I'm very happy with the way things worked out.
CONAN: Kit, thanks very much for your call.
KIT: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. There are dramatic moments like that, Larry Smith, and some less so.
SMITH: Very much so. And, you know, the book doesn't have sections like, these are moments when something happened when you were young, or this is when the phone rang and my life changed, but all that is in there. The book is meant to be flipped and read anywhere. And I really saw that a lot of the less dramatic moments are when people are younger, and they realized, oh, my God. I've been disappointed for the first time. A girl does a wonderful, cartoon-type moment where she talks about realizing that the Red Sox had lost the '86 World Series and that actually, just because you wanted something to happen, there was no connection that you would actually get it - as a young girl.
And then some of the older writers and - who are writing from, you know, an older place and talking like Kit does - was like, you know, things happened for a reason. Bad stuff happens for a reason. And, in fact, the imperfections in our world can actually make us stronger and better.
CONAN: You talked about cartoons. There's another lovely cartoon about a girl who's mother has been away; in fact, getting a stadium ready for a Rolling Stones concert, and gets a tattoo to tell her daughter that she misses her. It says, it's a sparrow. Sparrow is her secret name that her mother uses for her.
SMITH: Right. It's called "Tattoo." It's by a woman named Summer Pierre. It's a lovely moment. It's just a single-page illustration. The author is 8 years old, and her mom really misses her and did this amazing - sort of tribute to her by having a tattoo. It's the "Tattoo You" tour, after all. And, in fact, it's actually not a sparrow, you know.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SMITH: But it doesn't matter...
CONAN: It's a hummingbird.
SMITH: ...even at 8 years old, it was the point. And, you know, her worldview of her mother just sort of changed. And also like, hey, life's imperfections are kind of beautiful, you know. That's why bells have cracks. As Diane Ackerman writes about when her husband, Paul West, also a well-known writer, had a stroke, she thought it would destroy their magical marriage. But in fact, it changed it, in many ways, for the better.
CONAN: He writes an essay, too, so you get it from both sides.
CONAN: Let's go next to Anne(ph), Anne with us from Franklin, New Jersey.
ANNE: Hi. Good afternoon.
ANNE: About six years ago, I started to become very, very ill - to the point, about five years ago, I couldn't drive. I couldn't even find myself in my own house. I lost - I was only about 110 pounds at the time; I went down to about 85 pounds, and my doctor just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, well, you can't afford me - and put me on Medicaid. And I went through a whole series of doctors at the federal clinic. And they couldn't find what was wrong, and they just kind of dismissed me also. And family and friends were kind of like, well, it is what it is; kind of - get-over-it kind of thing, which you don't.
And finally, it was just the kindness of strangers. But the defining moment was realizing that I needed to be the person to - even though I couldn't think straight, and it took me months and months and months to try to communicate with people what was wrong me, it was just that perseverance. But it was the kindness of strangers, and knowing to finally learn how to ask for help - which is something that I didn't learn from my own family, and something that I've been trying to teach since then to my parents and siblings, that it's not a bad thing to ask for help.
CONAN: It's not a bad - a lot of us are raised to be self-sufficient, but it's not a bad thing to know when you need help.
CONAN: In fact, it's kind of being human, isn't it?
ANNE: Perfect. Yes.
CONAN: Yeah. All right, Anne. Thanks very much.
ANNE: Thank you.
CONAN: This email from Kristina Sedaris(ph): Becoming a parent, she writes from Dayton, Ohio. And this is from Gretchen in Oshkosh. The moment my life changed - which I'll never forget - was just weeks after I turned 16, when my dad ran into my bedroom in the middle of night and frantically pleaded: Go do that emergency stuff to your mom! I will never forget, from that moment, through - giving her CPR, the neighbor's dogs howling, listening to the approaching ambulance, my shaking legs, the EMT grabbing a living room lamp, to watching my dad and her rushed away in the fog of the night.
Boy, you do get some good stories, Larry Smith. When you figure out the right prompt, they do come in.
SMITH: Right. And I think you see a real through-line. We hear this, oh, you rise to the occasion. And then you wonder, do you rise to the occasion? But Wes Moore, who's the author of a great book, "The Other West Moore," talks about going to boot camp. He was 14, and he was a mess. And at boot camp, he rose to the occasion - totally different note.
A writer named - or now a writer; I don't know if he was a writer before - Attila Kalmar talks about defecting from the Iron Curtain in - at age 17, to Vienna. And it was truly a split-second decision. And he - suddenly, he has no money; he can't speak German. And he - his whole life changed. And it was like - it was - he knew, at age 17, it was now or never. And now, he lives a happy life in New Jersey and has his own business.
CONAN: The very first story in the book is called "Flash," by Caroline Paul, who was a firefighter in San Francisco and determined to be, you know, as one of the few women at that time in San Francisco, feistier than ever. And she and her partner and a couple of other guys get caught in a flashover. It was only a second, she wrote, but I heard the voice clearly. I squashed it just as quickly. I'm not going back in there. Then, as if fighting against a greater force in me, I clumsily followed Frank. We found Victor quickly. He was unhurt. Thankfully, he had taken cover in an adjoining room.
(Reading) Later at the station, we joked about the explosion, our burned ears, the expression on the chief's face as we came somersaulting out of the doorway into the garage. But that day, for me, was more than just another adventure. It had exposed something I had not reached before - a limit. The explosion had shaken something loose, a dark and fearful side I had to face. I had been young and arrogant and flippant. Now, I was just young.
We're talking about "The Moments" from the creators of "Six-Word Memoir." Larry Smith is with us here. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Why did you put that one first?
SMITH: I love that story, Neal. You know, it has everything. We talk about moments we realized the world isn't the way you think it is when you're young, and moments when you're older and you realize, actually, the world is not supposed to be the way you think it is. It's imperfect. But, you know, Caroline Paul realized so much about herself. You know, as you say, she ends with: Now, I was just young. And you know, she went to live this amazing life as a firefighter and then a writer. And that book - first of all, it blasts you into the book. Most of us won't fight a fire, right?
SMITH: Most of us won't, like Aaron Huey, be, you know, in a foxhole in Afghanistan while being a war reporter. But all of us will have moments when we're tested, when - we'll have moments like Aaron Huey, when we realize - his piece is called "If I Don't Die Today, I Will Marry You, Kristin Moore" - when I - that if I get through this, I will get my head together and get some act right.
And also, you know, this book starts in the middle of a fire, and it ends in Disneyland with a lovely piece about a woman taking her son to Disneyland the day before he goes into kindergarten for the first day. And in between a fire and Disneyland is life, and it's a lot of different ways of looking at it. And it's just - there's a lot happening.
CONAN: Let's go next to Ruth, Ruth with us from Grand Rapids.
RUTH: Hi. I was raised in a very conservative evangelical family, white family in the Midwest. And I moved out East. I was a pastor and went to a conference, where I met Jeremiah Wright in 1989. And that is the moment that changed my life.
CONAN: And why?
RUTH: At that point, I was in love with a man from seminary who's African-American. And my father's fear overcame his love, and it was difficult for him to imagine a relationship with me in that. And in this sermon - I had never even heard of Jeremiah Wright before. And Jeremiah Wright referred to Psalm 27, where it says: Even though my mother and father reject me and forsake me, you will never reject me, says my God.
So that's number one. And number two is, in this sermon, he said - and this is - he preached it on his honeymoon. And he said, you can't give your whole heart to nobody but God.
CONAN: And how did your relationship work out?
RUTH: The man that I loved from seminary wisely said that my love for my family - eventually, that I would feel like I had to choose one or the other. And we remain beloved friends. He preached at my wedding when I married a man who was white. And Dr. Wright has been a father to me in many ways, for all these years. And my mom and dad and my friend who preached at our wedding, and my husband, we all love each other deeply.
CONAN: Ruth, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.
RUTH: Thank you.
CONAN: There are so many stories. She mentioned a minister - a preacher, Jeremiah Wright - but a lot of stories about ministers and many, many about teachers.
SMITH: There's a lot about teachers, and there's a lot about finding religion, losing religion. And teachers are a really interesting through-line. Dave Eggers, who is a very famous writer, wrote about a teacher who really changed his life when he was in high school in Chicago. He was writing a paper about "Macbeth," and he was procrastinating - as Dave was, you know, sort of want to do. And he turned in his paper and at the bottom of the paper, Mr. Criche wrote: Sure hope you - became a writer.
And I'll quote Dave here: That was it, just those six words. It was the first time someone had indicated in any way that writing was a career option for me.
CONAN: We'll end with this email from Laureate(ph), and she writes: Greetings from Shady Valley, Tennessee, home of a Smith mag member. Who would have thunk? That's the beauty of Smith magazine and its projects like "The Moment." Bits and pieces of lives from all over the globe transform into words, and go on to touch the lives of others. It's truly a democratic phenomena, accessible to anyone. Sharing important moments from our lives is what we all long to do. We're all encouraged by projects like "The Moment." Thanks, Larry.
SMITH: And if this book provokes conversation, then I think "The Moment" works. Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: Larry Smith, the founding editor of Smith magazine, joined us from our bureau in New York. The book is "125 Writers and Artists Famous and Obscure, The Moment."
Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will be live in New Hampshire with results, of course, from Iowa, and looking ahead to the first-in-the-nation primary. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.