I recently taught a group of high schoolers about six-word memoirs. And not just any group, but a church group; and not just any six-word memoirs, but spiritual memoirs. My plan, I prayed, would allow each—after an initial rather expansive free-write exercise—to sculpt her convictions and confusions into a mere six-word sentence.
So why six-words? What could possibly be the point? Or, should I say, “Why six-words, what’s the point?” (Spend a little time with this drill and all communication begins to consist of six-word locutions.) I told the kids this would help them center themselves; help them learn to name what is difficult to name. I wanted the alphabet to become a rosary of possibility—wanted them to rub those letters until a path was made straight or a supplication answered.
Our Unitarian Universalist religion encourages a covenant of seven principles (such as a free and responsible search for meaning) instead of a firm-footed creed. Sometimes all the spiritual possibilities can leave a person a bit wobbly. For this reason we suggest members develop an elevator speech—a brief description of belief distilled to the time of an average elevator ride.
The six-word faith statement makes for a quick trip.
We discussed Hemmingway’s supposed and famous baby shoes: For sale: baby shoes, never worn. And talked about how a line can develop into an entire story, a narrative with staying power for the rest of the day. That’s the way it is with good writing. Wanderings and wonderings are explored, and hopefully the reader—that quiet collaborator in all our creations—is left with something to care about.
The teens did a pretty good job. Lots of goofiness, lots of angst. In general they’re much more worldly than I was as a teen—or maybe still am. This group’s been raised to look at a thing from all sides, to form their own opinions instead of accept another’s version of the truth. Of course that might be where the angst comes in. It’s easier to rebel against a creed than to drop a principle.
I tried a couple (“Nothing a long walk won’t solve.”), but soon began daydreaming about six-word memoirs for writers. At home, a Google search revealed plenty of examples from famous and not so famous wordsmiths. Apparently I’m not alone in seeing the benefits as well as the endless possibilities for waking up the writing bones: summarizing thoughts, distilling a passage’s meaning, avoiding other work. And, most importantly, allowing oneself to find other ways to play with language.
That’s what we writers are doing after all; playing with words—zooming in and out, crystalizing what needs to be said. Giving solid shape to the ephemeral. Those 26 letters shuffled again and again until they tell a story—or find a truth.
In her memoir “What Comes Next and How to Like It,” Abigail Thomas describes having her new students write two pages about a decade of their life. The catch? The sentences can be only three words long. “You can’t hide behind a sapling,” she writes.
Dang, true that. With six words I can still enhance and improve, create an effect, add a darling. But it’s pure exposure with only three words. Some silliness can get you started: The sun rose. The sun set. Let’s not fret.
That kind of defensiveness can’t be sustained though. Thomas must know this, that the impulse to move quickly through the assignment will become impossible. I imagine her classroom becoming still, the pauses between pen scratchings or key strokes lengthening as life is divided into ten-year spans and memories are dredged. Dirt will be found. The initial luxury of two waiting pages may become a fearful journey of three-word planks—with no opportunity to hide from emotion or slow a disclosure with craft elements. Distraction is futile. My chest tightens.
Tightens and then gets curious. Yeah, it’s my chest that gets curious as I consider my own two pages. Feelers of possibilities rove out to the rest of the system—wake up the brain, whisper to the fingers poised above the impatient middle row, press the j reach for the o, hurry.
What if the planks turn into scaffolding? What if in whittling down to the support beams I find some long-forgotten church key? An entry into why I’d willingly spend a Sunday morning with teenagers instead of at home with the newspaper. I could uncover ten years of plot points or create two pages of three-word sentences that all start the same: Then came…. The exercise opens up, pulls me in—surprises me with new material. The fun begins. Cool.
“You can’t hide behind a sapling.” Thomas tells us. That’s good stuff. Six-words mind you, but still, damn fine writing.
Joanne Nelson, an educator and writer living in Hartland, Wisconsin, is the nonfiction editor for the Tishman Review.