How to Condense Your Life into Six Words

Ted Talk – How to Write a Six Word Memoir

A six word memoir is a personal reflection on life. They can be serious, funny or sad. They can expand to an entire life or capture the tiniest moment in time.

A six word memoir may also be a poem, story or joke. This combination of styles adds dimension and power to the writing.

The Six-Word Memoir

Initially launched in 2006 by Larry Smith, founder of SMITH Magazine, the six-word memoir is a way to describe one’s life in just that. It’s a popular project and book series, often heard around the world at Six-Word Memoir “slams” and in hospitals and veterans’ groups, after-school programs and in houses of worship, and even during speed dates.

This is a great activity to introduce as you’re building community and teaching content, allowing students to see the many ways that an idea can be expressed. Encourage them to use metaphors, tell a story, or utilize joke structure (e.g., set-up / setup / punch!).

The Art of Writing

Writing a memoir can feel intimidating for students. This exercise is designed to help them write a concise, impactful piece without overwhelming them. It is also a great way to practice editing and cutting out superfluous words.

The first step in creating a six word memoir is to reflect on significant events in your life. Think about the emotions you felt and the core themes of your experiences.

You can even have your students do this activity with historical figures they are learning about. This will help them get to know their characters and understand their perspective. They could also write a six word memoir after reading nonfiction to show their understanding of the topic.

The Six-Word Story

The six word story is a quick, creative writing prompt that has become popular on the internet and in classrooms. It is thought to have originated with Ernest Hemingway, who challenged his friends at a dinner party to write a complete story in only six words. Hemingway’s legendary response: “For sale, Baby shoes, never worn.”

Students use this as an exercise to distill a topic down to its most important parts and choose the best six words to describe it. This is an excellent way to teach the skill of narrative arc and concise description. The stories also provide a great opportunity to practice being selective with word choice and combining poetry with prose.

The Six-Word Poem

Six words can distill a pivotal moment or convey a person’s emotions. Using this short writing form, students can create stories, jokes, or memoirs.

Larry Smith, founder of the online magazine SMITH, challenged his community to encapsulate their lives in six words. The result is a series of tiny memoirs, now collected in the book It All Changed in an Instant.

Teachers can use this simple writing prompt to kick off a unit on memoirs. The six-word memoir can also be a great way for students to connect with historical figures they’re studying, such as Jeannette Walls or Martin Luther King Jr. When they read, “Life is better with headphones on,” students may nod in recognition or agreement.

The Six-Word Joke

In 2006, Larry Smith challenged his community to encapsulate their lives in six words. Their responses were so moving and funny that he created a book of them, Things Don’t Have to Be Complicated: Illustrated Six Word Memoirs.

Whether your six-word story makes people cry or laugh, it’s important to think about how you’re structuring it. Try using some of the set structures that jokes use: for example, a triple (setup – setup – punch!) or a simile (like a lion, but with a bald spot). Students can also experiment with substituting word choice to refine their six word memoir. This will allow them to explore the connotation of specific words and the effect that has on their audience.

The Six-Word Poetry

Whether a story or poem, a memoir or joke, the constraint of six words fuels rather than inhibits creativity. When SMITH Magazine editor Larry Smith challenged his community to encapsulate their lives in exactly six words, he inspired a global movement that continues to this day.

Grab a pen and paper or sit down at your computer. Do a first burst of ideas and write as many six word memoirs as you can. Then, go back and edit them to get down to the best ones. You might be surprised to see how well some of them work as poetry, stories, jokes, or a hybrid of styles.

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