Ernest Hemingway wrote the first one: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."
Six words that told an entire, emotion-filled story. And six words that so inspired Smith Magazine editors Rachel Fershleiser and Larry Smith, they started an online magazine three years ago around the premise that everyone has a story to tell, no matter how small.
The very notion of a six-word memoir is a perfect fit today, Fershleiser remembers thinking, "when everything is voyeuristic and confessional, and everyone blogs."
They were right. They posted the idea on the Smith Magazine blog and mentioned it to a few writers, and suddenly, the whole thing went viral. Entries started pouring in via e-mail, texts and Twitter as people from all walks of life found a literary outlet in the most concise and nonthreatening of art forms: six words that end up yielding insights into people's lives and souls. "Found true love, married someone else," read one entry. "Married by Elvis, divorced by Friday," another recounted. And, "It's worth it, despite your mother."
"Some are very funny, some tragic," says Fershleiser. "'Happy enough was her tentative reply.' Those are the ones that sit in my belly and come back to me later."
Compiled into a book — whose title was, of course, six words — "Not Quite What I Was Planning" soared up the New York Times best-seller list. It was a perfect quickie read, says Fershleiser, for a population that had multitasked itself into a frenzy.
"Call it an ADD book, fine," she says. "but I'm happy to be what somebody can sneak in between all the work they have to do, happy to be in the diaper bag for the five minutes a mom has. We were thrilled."
But the mini-memoir craze only grew. Teachers began making six-word assignments to kindergartners, grad students and everyone in between. San Ramon teacher Kathy Moore and her colleagues, for example, have been using six-word memoirs all year, assigning them to high school students as well as special ed kids.
"One of our second-grade teachers had her whole class published on the Smith Web site this fall," Moore says. "Our family had a fine time with them at Thanksgiving too. I love the idea that this is the American version of haiku."
It wasn't just teachers or kids, although Smith quickly launched a second Web site especially for teenagers. Some hospitals started using the tiny memoirs with their post-traumatic stress patients, and several galleries hosted exhibits based on the terse lit.
And soon, of course, there was a second collection: "Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak," by writers famous — Daniel Handler, Ayelet Waldman, Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley poet Robert Hass — and obscure.
Now on tour, Fershleiser and Smith just finished an appearance at Berkeley's Mrs. Dalloway's bookstore, where "Love & Heartbreak" contributors read aloud and pulled spectators up to the microphone to compose their own, impromptu versions. Preparation for the next book?
"It turned into this memoir slam and valentine to-do," Fershleiser says in tones of utter delight. "They had decorated with hearts and tissue paper, and we had candy."
Our readers have a shot at literary immortality as well. Late last month, we asked readers to write their own six-word memoirs, inspired by Valentine's Day. The first three were our absolute favorites, and Fershleiser and Smith will select at least one of them for inclusion in their new book. But we couldn't resist printing more, so enjoy these, then go online for more.
Breathless, then blissful married to you.
— Susan Harvey, Walnut Creek
Bought flowers and chocolate for myself.
— Carole Inglis, Concord
He brings flowers any other day.
— Upesi Mtambuzi, Richmond
Downside to true love: veterinary bills.
— Yvette Ratliff, Brentwood
Some enchanted evening turned to years.
— Gail Fitzgerald, Clayton
Dive right in. Go heart first.
— Jeanette Fitzgerald, Danville
Bittersweet love has captured my heart.
— Eva Perkins, Newark
This we know, love ages well.
— Marie & Keith Killgore, Alameda
Roses at work; Lingerie in bed.
— Kathy Carbullido Boxton, Pleasanton
Chocolate melts reason and hearts.
— Steven Kass, Walnut Creek
East, West, a life in between.
— Mary D. Hendershot, Concord
Love equals life times forever, amen.
— Kathy Moore, San Ramon
Awkward start, everlasting love so far
— Marilyn Slade, Pleasanton
Valentines created using Elmer's remain precious.
— Antonia Olfert, Pleasanton
Love is friendship, free from gravity.
— Yvette Ratliff, Brentwood
Jason Junior born on Valentine's Day
— Grandma: Marjorie Witt, Lafayette
In my heart, you beat loudest.
— Tom Lindemuth, Oakley
Will he remember it is today?
— Leslie Ragsdale, Burlingame
Marriage: an impossible state without God.
— Judie Hockel, Walnut Creek, married 49 years