One day, while visiting a website I’m addicted to, I took the challenge it gave its readers to tell their life stories in six words. Typical of me, I typed in an answer, clicked SUBMIT, and later wondered what I’d written. You can see my impulsive act – along with entries from Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Jonathan Lethem and Richard Ford – in the book, NOT QUITE WHAT I WAS PLANNING: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure.
Please welcome Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser, editors of SMITH Magazine and the folks behind this weird and wonderful book!
Photo credit: Abby Pope
Tell me about SMITH Magazine. How would you define what it’s about and who your readers are?
Larry: SMITH is like a rollicking backyard barbecue. There might be a few famous writers milling around, but they’re just in the mix among the whole group. People are swapping stories, telling tales, and then bringing them back home and repeating the ones that stuck to them the most. Our tagline, which we repeat like a mantra, is “everyone has a story,” and that more than anything defines what SMITH Mag is about. We believe that storytelling should be egalitarian, accessible, and fun. On the site we’ve both made the barrier to entry extremely easy, and also made a point of showing that your words can be published right alongside some of the best-known writers of our day. Our storytelling playing field is a level one.
Rachel: Another thing I like to point out about SMITH is that it’s about personal storytelling in the interactive media age. Our “stories” aren’t just text – they’re YouTube videos, photo essays, podcasts, and serialized comics. There’s never been a richer time for sharing your quirks and obsessions with likeminded people around the world.
You just did a big re-design of the site. Want to share some of the new bells and whistles?
Larry: The biggest change is we’ve had a number of community tools (shameless plug: lovingly built by Ben Brown’s XOXCO company) that have nearly overnight helped us move from a more traditional magazine (editors assign and edit stories; some pieces come in over the transom) to a real populist storytelling community (the gates are more open). The stories are driven by readers, but curated by professional editors. We’ve set up “story projects” so that readers can pick a topic, write a story, make a headline, add a pullquote, include a picture, a hyperlink, and add tags if they like. Then we feature the best stuff but let everything else have a place on the table. Readers have profiles – “these are the stories I wrote, these are my favorite stories I’ve read,” that sort of thing. We’re creating an uncomplicated but we hope high-energy spot to tell and share stories. Some of our storytellers will just get a thrill out of seeing their words out there for the first time. Others will get book deals.
Rachel: And there’s still editor-assigned content – features on people with unique lives and obsessions, interviews with published memoirists. It’s interesting and entertaining like any magazine, and it’s inspiration for our community.
Do you see advantages to writers being published online vs. in print? And do you think blogging and online publishing has changed the nature of writing?
Larry: I think a couple things are happening which feed into each other. The gap between the cachet of print and online is closing: being published on a well-respected online magazine, or solely on the web site of a print publication doesn’t feel second-tier at all. At the same time, we expect more of our bloggers – better writing, cleaner copy, few factual errors. What’s more, your writing of course gets much more exposure if it’s on the web – I think my father is the last person in America to still clip and mail articles.
Rachel: A lot our pieces really belong on the web – you can click through to find out more about the people involved, watch an embedded video, or comment and get a response. I’m also really unimpressed by the hand wringing over the web making us less literate. Granted, I judge people harshly for “u,” use impeccable punctuation even in text messages, and consider emoticons against my religion. But as a society, I think we spend much more time reading and writing than we did pre-internet, and that blogs, and even emails and instant messaging, have encouraged people to streamline their use of language for the better.
Give me some examples of pieces you think really define your magazine.
Larry: When you break it down, SMITH features three kinds of stories: Reader-driven stories like the six-word memoirs; hybrid pieces, like Writing the Whip, the diary of a working dominatrix, which is essentially an edited and well-written blog; then we have pieces that are more or less assigned and handled in classic magazine style. These range from a photo essays and interview with Leonard Nimoy about his photos of large women to excerpts and interviews from new memoirs like Felicia Sullivan’s, recently posted in “Memoirville” to ambitious serialized webcomics like Shooting War (which became a book this past fall) and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (now in its ninth chapter).
It’s all linked by what we call “the chicken’s-eye view” – the perspective from the ground up – the individual take on the micro and macro world around him. In A.D., we tell the Katrina story by following the lives of five un-famous people over the course of the year; and, what the hell, let’s tell that story in comic form and include podcasts and videos of the real-life “characters” because, well, we can. Our love of personal narrative pushed us to create a storytelling community. Then we used the tools readily available to us and anyone with a laptop and decent net connection to lead our readers into a world of storytelling I don’t think any of us knew was so possible just a few years ago.
So what’s a perfect SMITH story?
Larry: It’s a six-word memoir by a woman who says, “I Photoshop people in my head.” It’s a memoir in progress by an 83-year-old WWII vet who gets a book deal a few months later. It’s a rollicking tale of posing nude for an insane artist. It’s a too-good-to-be true (but it is!) diary of a working dominatrix in New York City.
Rachel: Basically, it’s true, it’s personal, and it all opens a window into a part of the world you may not have thought about before. Above all, it’s a story that inspires you to tell one of your own.
Tell me something about the two of you outside of your work at SMITH.
Larry: To support my online storytelling habit, I work part-time for ESPN mag, where I used to be an editor. I also freelance for other places whenever I can, but there’s not much spare time, and don’t expect there to be soon, but that’s the deal with a startup, a deal I’d make again. I live with Piper Kerman, a woman I met 12 years ago and married two years ago (and whose own life story is being published by Spiegel & Grau later this year; it’s a good one). We are the only married people in our thirties in Park Slope without kids, however I do have a mild pregnant women obsession.
I also love yoga, have my weekly hoops game, and traveling. I managed to combine those three passions in a recent freelance piece for Men’s Journal. An editor called me and said, “Hey, don’t you know basketball and yoga?” – a sentence I never thought I’d hear. A few weeks later I was in Bora Bora doing a piece on a yoga retreat for pro basketball players – that’s as good I can imagine in my life as a freelancer.
Rachel: I also freelance write in time I don’t really have, and work at Housing Works Bookstore Café, an amazing nonprofit bookstore that raises money to fight AIDS and homelessness. It’s got all my favorite things – books, music, movies, wifi, coffee, and smart strangers to talk to. It’s a perfect counterpoint to staring at my iBook alone in my room for days at a time.
I still make coffee for two. – Zak Nelson
Running away: best decision I made. – Stephen Elliott
Revenge is living well, without you. – Joyce Carol Oates
I’m enjoying even this downward dance. – Colum McCann
Never really finished anything, except cake. – Carletta Perkins
I watched a lot of television. – Adam Hirsch
Started small, grew, peaked, shrunk, vanished. – George Saunders
Fearlessness is the mother of reinvention. – Arianna Huffington
EDITOR. Get it? – Kate Hamill
How did you come up with the idea of the six-word memoir, and how did that strange idea catch fire?
Rachel: There’s a literary legend that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in six words and he came up with, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” We always liked that, but we’re living in a confessional, voyeuristic age, and doing memoirs seemed like the logical evolution. SMITH is all about telling your own story, so autobiography was a natural fit. It’s a fresh twist on a classic.
It caught on through the peculiar magic of the web – we partnered with Twitter, and their audience is people who like to write short messages and broadcast them. Then it was blogged to death and emailed around. In a few weeks, we had thousands of submissions, and we heard that teachers were assigning six-word memoirs to their students, families were trading them across dinner tables, and pet fanatics were writing them for their dogs.
Larry: It caught fire, we suspect, for a few reasons. Everyone has a story and everyone should have a place to tell it – for a year folks had been doing it at SMITH before we launched six words. But the six-word memoirs taught us a few things. For one thing, parameters are paramount – people appreciate guidelines. But I think the main reason people responded with such energy, passion, poignancy and humor to our six-word challenge is because we asked them. We said: Hey, we have Dave Eggers and Joyce Carol Oates’ six-word memoir, and you know what? We’d like yours, too.
Rachel: And the six-word format really lowered the bar to entry. People who might otherwise have said, “I’m not a writer,” or even just, “Who has the time,” said, “I can do that.” And once they started to, some of them couldn’t stop.
Did anything surprise you about the submissions?
Larry: The volume, for one. When we launched the six-word memoir as a challenge in November 2006, we had a solid growing, reader and writer base, but we weren’t such a huge site that we expected to get 15,000+ submissions in just a few months. From there, the intensity of so many of the memoirs took us by surprise – people really went deep in six words. This book is just over 800 of the more than submissions we received (and still receive on smithmag.net every day) and we could easily fill many more books without repetition or diminishing quality of the short, short life stories. So while we are huge believers in the power of storytelling, the power of just six well-chosen words really blew us away.
Rachel: I was most struck by the honesty. I couldn’t believe the things people were willing to say and attach their names to – that they didn’t love their spouses, regretted having their children, or even just how lonely they feel. I’m think people found it cathartic and somehow validating.
Having now worked to put a book together, what have you learned behind the scenes that you can pass along about editing, collaborating or publicity?
Larry: Your community are your best advocates. In our case, we have the SMITH community, but we have a brilliant subset of contributors to the book who are a truly passionate community. Part of the reason they’re so involved is that we kept them in the loop at every step. When we got a book deal for six-word memoirs, which obviously was not some huge deal, we had one request we insisted they abide by: every contributor gets a book. And 832 books is a lot of books, even for HarperCollins, which has been great to us. Each book represents an author, one whom we’re proud to have, and who seems proud to be a part of the book.
Rachel: Here’s my brutal honesty, in exchange for the honesty our contributors gave us: Editing a book like this is tons and tons of grunt work – at times we felt like our own interns. It’s dozens of spreadsheets and weeks of copy-pasting. It’s creating distro lists and mass emailing and answering the same questions a hundred times. Publicity is probably more work than making the book in the first place, and takes a whole slew of passionate people. If you collaborate on a book, at some point you’ll want to kill each other. And it is all so, so totally worth it.
Larry: And to some extent is chaos theory – we tried and are still trying everything. So it’s like: OK, let’s send out emails and snail mails to all the contributors. Let’s start a six-word Facebook group. Has anyone updated the MySpace page lately? Then we see that HarperCollins has created an ecard for the book – awesome, let’s get that going around. And while HarperCollins is trying to get us on The Today Show, we’re Twittering out one great six worder a day to our Twitter “followers”. So it’s a real mix of old school and new school, a professional PR team and complete guerilla style promotion.
But I don’t thing anything has gotten people more excited about what this book is all about, and how powerful six words can be than the video. One weekend SMITH co-founder, Tim Barkow, decided to take some of the memoirs and mess around. When he looked up 18 hours later, he had made this incredible video. We bought the rights to a catchy song for $25, synched it up, and voila, the six-word memoir video’s racking up views on YouTube.
And just to round out the insanity, when I see someone reading The New Yorker on the subway, I hand them a postcard for the book and say, “Hey, if you love storytelling, you’ll love this book; and lots of writers you read in that magazine are in it.” I’m sure I scare people, but I know that they would love the book if they pick it up. For $12, I hope they’ll at least find out if they do. That’s something like 2 cents a story, which is a little silly to think about, but, you know, we’re just are so excited about this little book. It’s a manifestation of everything we hold believe about storytelling: populist, accessible, fun, profound, and addictive.
Would you do it again?
In one word, not six: absolutely.
Rachel Fershleiser has written for The Village Voice, New York Press, Print, and other publications. She’s SMITH‘s memoir editor and lives in New York City.
Larry Smith founded SMITH Magazine on January 6, 2006, which was already National Smith Day. Most recently, he was the articles editor of Men’s Journal, and has been the executive editor of Yahoo! Internet Life, senior editor at ESPN magazine, and a founding editor of P.O.V. and Might magazines. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, Popular Science, Men’s Health, Salon, and Slate.