What's Your 'Six-Word Memoir'? Once asked to write a full story in six words, legend has it that novelist Ernest Hemingway responded: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn." In this spirit, Smith Magazine invited writers "famous and obscure" to distill their own life stories into a single sentence. It All Changed in an Instant is the fourth collection of six-word memoirs from the magazine.

Can You Tell Your Life Story In Exactly Six Words?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/123289019/123331558" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


For the past several years, two editors from the storytelling site Smith Magazine have challenged their readers to write their lives in just six words.

Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith have joined us before to talk about their mini-memoir collections. The first one was "Not Quite What I Was Planning," and "Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak."

And now the pair are back with us again for the latest addition in their series: "It All Changed In An Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs From Writers Famous and Obscure." From author Frank McCourt, the miserable childhood leads to royalties, to "American Idol" Taylor Hicks, from bar singer to Halloween costume, this latest collection tackles life, love, work and everything in between in six words.

If you've got a Six-Word Memoir, share it with us. Our phone number is 800-989-8255, or email talk@npr.org. Or you can post your memoirs and read others at our Web site at npr.org. Just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from our New York bureau are coeditors Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. RACHEL FERSHLEISER (Editor, Smith Magazine): Thanks for having us.

Mr. LARRY SMITH (Founding Editor, Smith Magazine): Nice to be back.

ROBERTS: I got to ask: Why six words?

Mr. SMITH: Well, it comes from a good writer, an old Hemingway legend. As the story goes, Hemingway was once challenged in a bar bet, where all good stories start: Could he write a whole novel in just six words? And he wrote...

Ms. FERSHLEISER: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. And so we decided to take the idea of the six-word novel and give it a new twist for this confessional, voyeuristic age we're living in. Everything seems to be personal stories these days and non-fiction. So we decided to give our readers a chance to do their own.

ROBERTS: Were you surprised at how popular it became?

Mr. SMITH: Yeah, we were surprised. We put the project up at smithmag.net, didn't know what would happen - you know, hundred, 200, a thousand. And it's been over three years, and it's been 250,000 six-word memoirs on the site. And every morning, every day, every live reading we go to, it's completely different.

ROBERTS: Well, what stands out to me reading the book is how many are similar, actually. And I don't know whether that's just the universality of human experience, but there's a lot about, you know, life and death. And it's the ones that stand out as individual that really crack me up, like Dave Barry who says: Journalism? Ha! Just make stuff up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FERSHLEISER: I think that one thing...

ROBERTS: Which, ideally, is not my memoir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FERSHLEISER: One thing that really came through in all these memoirs and is part of how we liked the title, "It All Changed in an Instant" so much is that people were constantly talking about moments of change, moments of contrast. I used to be one-way, but now I'm another. So I think that that idea is really salient for a lot of people regardless if it's about your career, your family or something entirely different.

ROBERTS: We've got a bunch of callers all ready with their six-word memoirs, and I'm not going to ruin it by asking them to explain them. I'm just going to ask them to read them. Let's start with Cathy(ph) in Detroit. Cathy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

CATHY (Caller): Hi. Four pregnancies, three miscarriages, baby girl.

ROBERTS: Oh, Cathy, congratulations. That's a nice one. Let's hear from Marjorie in Birmingham. Marjorie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARJORIE (Caller): Hi. Mine is - well, I should explain mine a little bit. I'll see if I have to. So small, yet feels so big.

ROBERTS: Are you very short?

MARJORIE: No. It's - to me, it's about human - the journey of human consciousness, how we're all born feeling like we're the center of the universe. And then, as we grow older and learn more, we realize how much more there is than ourselves.

ROBERTS: Thanks, Marjorie. (unintelligible)

Mr. SMITH: The six-word memoir challenge lets you define yourself as you want to see - other people to see you. So it's really your chance to say: Here's who I am. Here's six words, my essence.

ROBERTS: Which is why it's a memoir, not an autobiography, right? I mean, it's got to have some perspective.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: It's got to have your own point of view in it. It doesn't have to be expository.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Emily in Mill Valley, California. Emily, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

EMILY (Caller): Hi. My memoirs are also my epitaph. Gave in, gave up, gave out. Enough said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: And it's a journey.

EMILY: (unintelligible) part of it.

ROBERTS: Emily, thank you for your six-word memoir. Let's hear from Felicity in Richmond. Felicity, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

FELICITY (Caller): Yes, hi. Mine is, In God we tryst: a travelogue.

ROBERTS: In God we tryst.



(Soundbite of laughter)


ROBERTS: Felicity, I'm not sure I need to know where that comes from.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Thank you for the six-word memoir. Again, the number here is 800-989-8255, or our email is talk@npr.org. What are some of your favorites, either from the book or from the ongoing Web site?

Mr. SMITH: Well, one of the interesting things - you know, your last reader - your last listener just brought up God. And so you get these things like: I spell God with two Os, or blame Catholic Church for bad news. So I really like those because Im thinking about God so much it's made me think about things in a new way.

ROBERTS: Its also - I like the perspective on people who are well known. Youll read one of these and not really understand what it means and then youll see the writer - the one from the actor Neil Patrick Harris.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Barney, Doogie, average names allude me.


Mr. SMITH: Its a real fun moment when we do live events, when you play this video, and first you see the memoir and then the name. So would you believe me anyway? And then the name pops up - James Frey.

ROBERTS: Yeah. (unintelligible) as we know it, as have you all. Lets hear from Barbara in Medford, Oregon. Barbara, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi. Well, as a - also as a political junkie who is drowning in a sea of rhetoric, mine is: Left, right, hey, wheres the middle?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: Very current.

ROBERTS: How about William in Hampton(ph), Connecticut.

WILLIAM (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call. My own view regarding my life of, you know, Im buying a house, getting married, having kids -what the hell was I thinking?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: You could sum up a lot of lives, William. Thank you for joining us. There are a lot of parenthood themes. Theres a lot of how children changed my life, and weve just heard that from a couple of our callers already. What are some of the other themes that you all keep seeing recur?

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Theres definitely a lot about jobs and careers, a lot about going to school for 10 years and coming out in debt without any actual career in sight. And then also I think a lot about the experiences of our childhood that still affect us. One of my favorites is: Fourth choice to prom, still overcompensating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FERSHLEISER: You know, and Larry would say that I err on the side of the nerdy girl memoirs, and that might be true. But I love all the ones that take one specific tiny moment and then extrapolate them to the way you feel about your whole life 20 and 30 years later.

Mr. SMITH: And I really love a lot of the technology ones. And heres something like this, which does what Rachel just said: Bachelor party, YouTube video - wedding cancelled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Ideally that is not the sum total of that mans life, you know?

Mr. SMITH: But it was a bad day.

ROBERTS: It was a bad day. Lets hear from Shelby in Lacrosse, Wisconsin.

SHELBY (Caller): Hi, I am a lunch lady and my six words are: The hairnet - now we are equal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Shelby, thank you so much. I love, you know, summing up your world in a hairnet.

Mr. SMITH: You cant make that up.

ROBERTS: Well, what do you think it is about having to be so brief? I mean, obviously you need to boil something down to the essence, but six words, its hard.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: It is, but I think that thats what makes them so interesting. Theres no room for equivocation, you know, and after Harvard, had baby with crackhead. She doesnt say, you know, oh, weve had some hard times, weve fallen in with a bad crowd and these things happen, and you just take the most powerful words to get your message across and pack them in there.

Mr. SMITH: Theres a writer who wrote about changing her sex. And her six-word memoir is - she wrote a whole memoir. Heres her six words: Change sexes, same monkeys, different barrel.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Also, she became he, now gets Hemingway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Is that what it takes?

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Apparently.

ROBERTS: Lets hear from Stephanie in San Francisco. Stephanie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

STEPHANIE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call. My six words are: She usually took the scenic route.


ROBERTS: Usually. Thank you, Stephanie.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, usually.

ROBERTS: How about Dan in Sebastopol, California. Dan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DAN (Caller): Hi, thank you. I actually can think of two. The first is the thing I say to my son all the time: Ill be there in a minute. And then the second is: Almost lived up to his potential.

ROBERTS: Almost lived up

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Almost and usually's are very interesting. They leave you a little bit of room to imagine.

Mr. SMITH: That reminds me of: Ask my teenager, she knows everything.

ROBERTS: Well, also, I like the ones that are - that do sort of read like an epitaph, that are things like, I hope theres an epilogue, you know, the kind of looking ahead ones.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Yes, and we have a little bit of a joke there. The first page is a lot about being published and the last is about epilogues and stuff. One of my favorites is: These years writing about those ones.

ROBERTS: Lets hear it from Shane in Cincinnati. Shane, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SHANE (Caller): Hi, hows it going?

ROBERTS: Good, how are you?

SHANE: Im doing pretty good.

ROBERTS: Whats your six-word memoir, Shane?

SHANE: What is going to happen now?

ROBERTS: Well, thats another good epitaph.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: The actress Marlee Matlin wrote one which would be a fantastic epitaph for her: Ive done it all except here.

ROBERTS: Yeah, that was another one where you needed to know who wrote it to understand what it meant.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Right, but then there are others that are so universal. You know: Loneliness - one egg in the pan. I just think we all know what that feels like at some point in our lives.

Mr. SMITH: My life made my therapist laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Right. Either thats a really good therapist or a really bad one. I cant quite decide.

Mr. SMITH: Real tricky life.

ROBERTS: Lets hear from Brian in Concord, New Hampshire. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN (Caller): Good afternoon, guys, Ive got two for you. One is world biography: six wedded, two dead, two beheaded - guess who.

ROBERTS: Oh, Henry VIII, there you go.

BRIAN: And my personal one: Im too bored to fight on Wii.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: I find that hard to believe, Brian, but thank you for sharing that.

Weve had a couple of people with a couple of choices. You all must have rewritten your six-word memoirs a hundred times.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Yeah, we have one for each book at least.

Mr. SMITH: The teens - we have a separate site, SMITHTeens.com, and they basically rewrite their memoir every 10 minutes - hormones raging, lives changing. But my latest six-word memoir is: Now I obsessively count the words.

ROBERTS: Right, you must. Because even just writing the introduction for this segment, I started thinking about things as they fit into six-word memoirs. Whats yours, Rachel?

Ms. FERSHLEISER: My six-word memoir for this is: morning, national television; afternoon, bookstore bathrooms. Because thats the contrast of my day job at a scrappy used bookstore to being, you know, on the road, being on NPR and appearing in bookstores. Its a big contrast for me.

ROBERTS: My guests are Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith. You can join us with your six-word memoir at 800-989-8255, or send us email: talk@npr.org. Youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Lets take a couple more of these. Weve got Michael in Cleveland, Ohio. Michael, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hey. Thank you. How are you?

ROBERTS: Good. How are you?

MICHAEL: Great. Im opening up another restaurant. My name is Mojo Hershman(ph). Hyper chef bouncing off the wall.

ROBERTS: Hyper chef bouncing off the wall. Thats an excellent one. Thank you, Michael. Good luck with your restaurant. Lets hear from Deona(ph) in Washington, New Jersey.

DEONA (Caller): Hi. Mine is - you want me to do what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SMITH: That reminds of I still cant believe she did that. Maybe you two got together.

ROBERTS: Thats right.

DEONA: Well, I take care of animals, so...

ROBERTS: Oh, well, that - yeah, that gives a different spin on it.

Mr. SMITH: Different date.

ROBERTS: You want me to be - to do what? Are you all finding enough momentum going in this to do more of these? Are there theme books coming out? What happens next?

Ms. FERSHLEISER: We get a lot of different themes. You know, love and heartbreak was the first one that spoke to us, and so we did a whole book of that. And the teen book was really powerful, but there are so many themes left. You know, the parenting memoirs are huge. We did a six-word mom-oirs contest, so wed love to do a book of those. I think theres a lot about faith, you know, specifically Judaism and Christianity or just all kinds of faith together. Theres a lot of universality in what people have to say about those things.

Mr. SMITH: Theres a woman who just did six-word memoirs - she sent it to us and well post it on the blog - six-word memoirs for all the Oscar nominees, you know? And that reminds me of I still practice my Oscar speech. Anything we try, it works. Six words has a little magic to it.

ROBERTS: I still practice my Oscar speech is a great one. There was also one - turned 11, no letter from Hogwarts.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Yes. A lot of people did not get their Hogwarts letters or are looking for their Edward Cullen vampire boyfriend.

ROBERTS: Lets hear from Murphy in Oklahoma City. Murphy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MURPHY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on the air. Im a construction worker and have been my entire life, probably always will be. So mine would be work hard - wake up, work hard, and wilt away.

ROBERTS: Wake up, work hard and wilt away. Murphy, that was kind of depressing.

Mr. SMITH: And theres a poet right inside him.

ROBERTS: There you go. We have a tweet from someone who says Holden gave me permission to rebel. Thats a little J.D. Salinger reference for you on the week of his death.

Mr. SMITH: You absolutely see current events coming into the site. Obama ran, now I can fly, right after Obama was elected. A lot of Holden Caulfield. Holden gave me permission to rebel, that kind of thing. Holden caught me in the rye.

ROBERTS: I think we have time for a couple more. Heres John in Houston. John, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on. My six-word memoir is I believe yesterdays tomorrow is today.

ROBERTS: Yesterdays tomorrow is today.

Mr. SMITH: A brainteaser.


ROBERTS: There you go. We all had to think about that. There was silence there for a minute but we got it. Lets hear from Drew(ph) in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Drew, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

DREW (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me. You may not get this reference. Mine is, found a peanut, it was rotten.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: I know that song.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Now were all going to have that tune going through our heads for the rest of the day, Drew.

DREW: Very good.

ROBERTS: Thanks for that.

DREW: Youre very welcome.

ROBERTS: How about Jared in San Francisco. Jared, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

JARED (Caller): Hi. I deal in my daily life with the federal recognition policy for Indian tribes, for those who have been terminated throughout the U.S.s history, and sadly, our six-word memoir is you cant get there from here.


Mr. SMITH: You know, we work with a lot of nonprofit (unintelligible) we're doing a project with the American Cancer Society and, you know, you can take whats your thing, whether its a battered women shelter or, you know, working with Native Americans, and six words is a form of self-expression. It absolutely works. Its been very powerful for all sorts of groups.

ROBERTS: And its sort of an interesting teaching tool too.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Yeah. Weve had a lot of schools using it. I mean, from kindergarten through graduate school, and we get sent pictures of bulletin boards and people who did it at a birthday party or a wedding. Its really a wonderful tool for people to get to know each other.

Mr. SMITH: In a third grade classroom, a little nine-year-old girl looked me in the eyes and said, nine years stacked within my soul.


Ms. FERSHLEISER: A little intense.

ROBERTS: Yeah, I imagine. I think we have time for one more. This is Brian in Boston. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi. Thank you. This time Ill get it right.

ROBERTS: Oh, thats an excellent way to end, Brian. Thank you so much. And thank you so much to Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser. They co-edited the "Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak" and the current one, "It All Changed in an Instant." They joined us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much for being here.

Ms. FERSHLEISER: Thank you.

Mr. SMITH: What a pleasure. Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Again, you can post your own six-word memoirs and read samples from the book at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.