TED Conversations

Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

Senior Editor, TED Books, TED Books


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Can you define your life in just six words?

This is the challenge Larry Smith presented to his online community, SMITH MAGAZINE, in 2006. His quest was inspired by the legend that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a novel in just six words. His heart-breaking result: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Giving the form a personal twist, Smith reimagined the six-word novel idea as the Six-Word Memoir, challenging contributors to create a half-dozen words of self-reflection. The constraint, it turned out, fueled rather than inhibited creativity: "Sometimes lonely in a crowded bed." Inspired by the form's popularity in schools, Smith recently called for submissions for illustrated Six-Word Memoirs, in which he asked students, whether in grade school or grad school, to create a piece of artwork that enhanced their memoirs. The voices in Things Don't Have to Be Complicated are younger than typical, but no less profound:

"Big Dream, Big Heart, Big Mouth"
"I'm a Muslim. not a terrorist."
"Life is better with headphones on."

At its core, the Six-Word Memoir offers a simple way for anyone of any age to try to answer the question that defines us all: Who am I?

Here's an excerpt of the book in the Washington Post:

You can buy it on:

Kindle: http://tinyurl.com/b35x88g

iOS: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/things-dont-have-to-be-complicated/id588129395?ls=1

Nook: http://tinyurl.com/cy8pdae

Author Larry Smith will be joining us for a one hour Q&A January 15th, at Noon Pacific / 3pm Eastern. Mark your calendars!


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  • Jan 15 2013: @Larry:

    Have you also tried to put the 6 words into other phrases like
    "Describe your personal strength and weakness." or "Describe the most awesome moment in your life." or "Dedicate 6 words to the person you love most."
    and asked that other people?

    If so, with which did you try it and what were the results?
    • Jan 15 2013: Yes, we've done many prompts, on the site and also in workshop settings, and most work really well. What helps is when you can give a well-defined prompt and also a few examples to get people going,

      (And as an aside I edited an anthology about life-changing moments, but the essays weren't answered in six words, they were up to 2,000 words) as that is a great question to ask anyone. It's called THE MOMENT.

      We have an ongoing project with To Write Love on Her Arms, a nonprofit that believes self-expression can help with pain and lead one toward hope. You can check it out here: http://www.smithmag.net/twloha
      • Jan 15 2013: But by giving examples, don't you influence the people?
        If I tell someone describe your life in 6 words, e.g. "This and that, so and so" I steer them into the direction of my example.
        Should this be avoided or is that ok?

        Thank you for your inspiration!
        • Jan 15 2013: I can see how that might happen, but I think more than that examples open things up for people, let them know "oh, there are lots of ways to use this form." One thing I have learned is that if you just give examples of the most insanely great sixes it can be intimidating for people (i.e. "I'll never be that smart, witty, nuanced...") so it is important not only to remind people that the form is easy and accessible (and fun!) but that there are no wrong answers. Your six words are yours and carry meaning.

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