Summing up a life in six words proves addictive

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - If you were asked to sum up your life in six words would it be a work of triumph -- or tragedy?

“Not quite what I was planning,” is a book of six word memoirs compiled by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, editors of online storytelling publication Smith Magazine.

The pair set out with an online contest to see if writers could emulate the success of Ernest Hemingway’s legendary six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn” -- and were flooded with 15,000 entries, putting about 800 into a book.

The entries came from writers never published as well as big names like U.S. celebrity chef Mario Batali (“Brought it to a boil, often”) and American author Joyce Carol Oates (“Revenge is living well, without you.”)

Smith and Fershleiser spoke to Reuters about how condensing life into six words can be addictive:

Q: What was the most surprising aspect of these memoirs?

Smith: “One of the wonderful things of this process is that they were, by and large, really good. People are really good storytellers ... Our first feeling was that is could be fun, cool, kooky, sweet but we found such intensity in these.”

Fershleiser: “People were shockingly open. They would send in six words having never written before. People would then send photographs. One man sent a picture of his late wife who was 29. People sent photos of headstones of babies’ graves.”

Q: Was there a common thread of humor or sadness?

Fershleiser: “They were everything. Some are really heartbreaking, some are funny, some are silly. The overarching theme to me is that life happens - good things, bad things and crazy things you never expected.”

Smith: “We were a little surprised by how willing people were to put themselves out there. I was pleasantly surprised by the poignancy. It was very inspiring to see what was possible in six words. Hemingway set a nice pace there but a lot of these hold up next to Hemingway’s very well.”:

Q: Which are your favorites?

Smith: “I love six world memoirs that tell stories.

“Ex wife and contractor now have house.” I’d read 50,000 words on that story. Another: “Wasn’t born a red head: fixed that.” I love what that says about someone -- that they took their life by the horns. It is so active, so powerful.”

Fershleiser: “I tend to be the grammar nerd. I like the ones you can see are well crafted. “Followed white rabbit. Became black sheep.” I love the interplay there.

“Found true love, married someone else.” That gets you in the gut. I also love “After Harvard, had baby with crack-head.” I wanted it to be the title but no one else was having that.”

Q: Are they from all ages?

Fershleiser: “It started with 20-somethings in New York but spread to all ages. I love it when we get them from people who are very young or old. One of my favorites is: “I’m 10 and have an additude.” I wanted to keep the misspelling in that.”

Q: Are you still collecting them?

Smith: “Once you start, you can’t stop and you end up counting the words of everything you say.”

Fershleiser: “You start to feel that six words are talking to you from magical places.”

Q: Are you thinking of doing a second book?

Smith: “We are planning on doing a sequel and maybe drilling it down further into something like six words about family, or about the environment. We are just addicted now.”

Q: Do you both have six word memoirs in the book?

Fershleiser: “Yes. Mine is: ” Bespectacled, besneakered, read and ran around.”

Smith: I rushed my first one - “Big hair, big heart, big hurry” -- but my second six word memoir is: “Two sisters, never left seat up”.”

Editing by Patricia Reaney