Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Starting: The Six-Word Memoir

by Merry Gordon

You know what's harder than writing?

Teaching someone else how to start doing it.

I'd know.  I've been trying for 15 years.

Now, my English 101 class is a survey course, an introduction to expository writing.  And we write. Oh, do we write.  We write negative process in the style of W.S. Merwin's "Unchopping a Tree."  We write analyses of gendered discourse.  We write tongue-in-cheek classification pieces that rework Dante's Inferno in the DMV.  We write Hamlet's Twitter feed. We take our political and cultural opposites to lunch, listen to their points of view, and strain their words into being, arguing against our own perspectives in the name of understanding.  By the end of the semester I have wrenched from them so much more than the requisite 3000 words earmarked in the course competencies.  By then, they don't even know it; they have stopped counting long ago.

But it's now, right about this time of year when the air crisps and the leaves begin to turn* that they start asking me the one question I still struggle with myself:  Where do I start? 

I can practically see the blinking cursors in their eyes.

I tell my students what writers and mentors told me for years:  write what you know.

So we start there.

When I tell them their first assignment is six words, they are dumbfounded.  Six words?  That's it? They grin, leaning back in their chairs a little.

That's when I throw Ernest Hemingway at them.

Well, maybe.  The attribution's apocryphal, but for the sheer, gut-wrenching punch I wouldn't put it past the old man:  "For sale:  baby shoes, never worn."

Six words.

Their grins turn to confusion, then to slow-dawning horror as the full impact of those six words hits them.  

Lesson one:  words are powerful.

I introduce to them the Six-Word Memoir, as conceptualized by Smith Magazine and based loosely around those few words ascribed to Hemingway.  The project is just what it sounds like: autobiographies in six words by both the famous and the obscure. We read the hilarious (like Colbert's "Well, I thought it was funny.") and we read the poignant ("Couldn't cope so I wrote songs," by Aimee Mann).  Then I invite students to distill their own lives into bite-sized memoirs.

Six words.

Just a little thimbleful of syllables, but we all have to start somewhere.

I write with my students.  I pen six-word memoirs for my job:

English teacher: more spellcheck, less paycheck.

I write them for my family on the good days:

In their laughter, I hear eternities.

I write them for my family on the bad days:

Mommy needs a timeout and nap.

This is when magic starts to happen in the classroom.  In six words, I help students make sense of their world.  Their writing becomes real and important.  It's not the kind of thing that'll ever make those bubble-in standardized tests, but they'll remember it, and that's a start for both of us.

Maybe it's worth it after all.

What's your six-word memoir?

*Not really.  There aren't actual seasons in Phoenix. The tempterature will remain over 100 here until December, when we all break out our Uggs and sweatshirts for approximately six days of actual winter.  But every September I still burn pumpkin-scented candles and pretend it's fall.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Fabulous post, Merry! You sound like the kind of English teacher who's going to inspire a lot of writers. :)

  3. Side note: Sometimes I hate our comment system, like when it rejects me twice in a row.

    Anyway... I loved your memoirs that you shared as examples--beautiful and lyrical and just lovely!

    We did this as a Relief Society activity recently, except instead of memoirs we were supposed to write them as eulogies--our entire life encapsulated in six words. Mine was "Things I created: stories, children, chaos."

  4. Thank you, Katy! (and Jeanna, yes, on the comments thing! - I have commented so many times and been rejected...) I love your 6-word eulogy. I'm pretty sure I've created those things as well - chaos more often than not. :)

  5. Merry, this is my favorite post you’ve ever written. I love not only the teaching methods you’ve shared here, but the way you’ve written about them. My six-word memoir...hmm...have to think about that one. <--- maybe that’s it? ;-)

  6. Sleepless, creative, unique, happy, Mormon mommy!



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