It sounds impossible. Almost preposterous. How can anyone write a memoir in six words?
Larry Smith can. He is the man responsible for making six words speak volumes. And those volumes include his most recent book, Oy! Only Six? Why Not More? Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life, which arrived in April.
Smith, a Moorestown, N.J., native, first gained a reputation for quirky first-person tales à la George Plimpton. He went off to a school for gentlemen in Scotland to be “gentrified” for a men’s magazine piece, and gave blood, sweat and tears to learn firsthand how to be a football referee for ESPN the Magazine.
But there was yet another pull in his life as a writer: a yearning to tell the stories of real people. And not just famous ones.
A turning point came when Smith approached his own grandfather, the late Morris Smith, a popular South Jersey pharmacist, about recording the story of his life. “Why would you want to bother? My life was so ordinary,” Morris responded. But his grandson prevailed, and ultimately recorded the tale of the Jewish immigrant’s odyssey from Russia to the United States. The experience energized and motivated Larry Smith.
On Jan. 6, 2006 — fittingly, National Smith Day, launched in recognition of the most popular last name in America — Smith’s creation, Smith Magazine, was born as an online publication, www.smithmag.net . True to its motto —“Everyone has a story” — the site was full of stories, both from established writers and people whose names few knew. Its content ranged from photo essays and interviews to offbeat tales.
Through the magazine, Smith got the word out that he was seeking memoirs in six words. The submissions came flooding in — over 15,000 in all.
“People managed to say so much in so few words. They went really deep,” said Smith, who was delighted by the originality, humor, intensity and common sense of the offerings.
It soon became clear to Smith that this had the makings of a book. Harper Perennial thought so, too. In February 2008, his first compilation, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, was published. Within a month, it was No. 9 on the The New York Times best-seller list in the How-To and Miscellaneous category.
As for his latest compilation, this one featuring Jewish six-word memoirs, Smith says that he’s been bowled over by the responses.
“I think that Jewish life is unique because we’re a wordy people. We’re also thoughtful, funny and intense. And what I got was a wide range of windows into Judaism from a terrific mix of people.”
Respondents, from the most Orthodox to the most secular, shared their words about Jewish life on everything from food — a popular choice for comment — to family, faith and, yes, tsuris. The concept has been bandied about the Shabbat table, in synagogues and among Jewish leaders. Rabbis have used the concept in sermons, and storytelling sessions at various JCCs and synagogues have, in Smith’s words, “created community in new ways.”
The six-word concept has proven so popular that it has even cropped up in the current election frenzy. The National Constitution Center, along with Smith Magazine, initiated a stump speech campaign using six well-chosen words. According to Ashley Berke, spokeswoman for the center, the “Address America: Six-Word Stump Speech Slam” has attracted over 20,000 responses at the center and via the Internet.
Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m., National Constitution Center, Smith will moderate a six-word smorgasbord from writers and performers offering their abbreviated takes on the American political scene.
Nov. 2 at 10:30 a.m, Katz JCC in Cherry Hill, as part of the “Author on the Road” speaker series. www.katzjcc . org
Nov. 11 at 5 p.m., Christ Church Neighborhood House; a discussion of Jewish stories as part of the First Person Arts Festival. www.firstpersonarts.org .