Stories of life

I just read a quick book titled: “It all Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs.” I first heard the editors taking about the book on NPR a few weeks ago, and then I saw it at the small bookstore in Alpine, so I bought it. The premise behind the book began with an apocryphal story about Ernest Hemingway who supposedly responded to a bar bet to write a novel in only six words with this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” No one knows if the story is true, but those six words certainly tell a story.

So the editors of Smith Magazine asked people to tell the true story of their own lives in six words and over 250,000 six-word memoirs have been submitted. The book I read is the third collection they’ve published.

I read all the six-word memoirs in the book and I was surprised how revealing they were. Some caught my breath at the implications. For example, Peter Loux submitted, “Army or jail? I chose wrong.” Not only do we know he got into some sort of trouble that left him with an unfortunate choice, but we don’t know which (wrong) choice he made. There is clearly much more to this story.

Abbe Shapiro wrote, “Expected forever. Have restraining order instead.” In two phrases his story went from hope to despair. His life is not what he expected.

Jill Steinmetz wrote, “Will finish novel after grading papers.” I know too many stories that are just like that: I will own my own studio after grading papers, or I will record my CD after grading papers, or I will publish my book after oil and gas, or I will pay attention to my family after I am successful.

I was intrigued by Melissa Maxwell’s submission: “Tattoos made my skin more ‘me.’” Having no desire to customize my own skin I have never understood the need or desire of other people to make permanent alterations to themselves. I am more likely to remove labels and paint over logos or make name-brand stuff look incognito and generic than I am to mark it up to get attention. It never occurred to me that an alteration could seem more authentic to someone.

A woman named Clare Hobba submitted this memoir: “Unraveled career, re-knitted as baby blankets.” I thought that was a good description of a journey from a hopeless situation – broken career – to one full of hope.

And Tammy Ray Wilson wrote, “Dancing naked in my empty nest.” I asked Cyndi if she was using Tammy Ray Wilson as a pseudonym and she denied it, but I’m not so sure.

Some of the submissions were very clever. The Amazing Kreskin (a presumptive first name, if you ask me) wrote, “Now, I know what you’re thinking.” And this by Caitlin O’Conner, “I have finally learned cliffhangers are …”

I will admit, a couple of the submissions made me stop and reevaluate my own story. Aaron Renier wrote, “Off in my own little world.” That, to be honest, is my fear of fears. It’s what wakes me up at night and what often shuts me down before I begin. I don’t really believe it logically, but in my heart the enemy’s attack comes in the form of the fear that I am off teaching and writing in my own little trivial world and that people are just putting up with me because I am occasionally funny. But then someone like Mark reminds me to “turn around and look at how full this bus is; people want to go wherever you go.” Thanks, Mark, I need that.

Another six-word memoir that I hope to avoid was by Kirstin Pesula-McEarchern: “Author of so many unwritten books.” I wrote in the margin, “Please, not me.” I want to write and publish them all, whether or not anyone reads them. I hope my last submission is in process the day I die.

So, Sunday night I sat across a table from Cyndi, at Rosa’s, of course, and read my favorite entries from the book. I also showed her my own attempts at telling my true story in six words.

I showed her this one: “Wanderer, student, introspective, lover, dreamer, loyal.” Cyndi said, “That’s just a string of descriptive words; it isn’t a story.” She was correct, of course, which caused me to scratch off three of my other attempts which seemed to be word strings as well.

I said, how about this: “Love a dancer, now I dance.” She knew I was talking about her influence on my life and she liked that part, but said, “Thanks, but your story is bigger than that.”

OK, how about this one: “Always leaning forward into the future.” She thought that one was better, but still more of a goal than a story. She wanted to hear my favorite. She’s been through this sort of thing with me before and she knew I was holding back my best idea. I read: “Miles to go before I sleep.” That was her favorite, as well. “Your story is, that your story isn’t over, and you have many miles to go yet.” Good girl; no wonder I love her so much. I have a lot of miles to go, and books, and essays, and talks, and friends, and adventures to go, before bedtime.


And so I’ll ask, why don’t you give it a try? Can you tell the true story of your life in six words? It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can stamp “draft’ across it so you can change it later. But try it. And send it to me, or post in the comments of my blog. I need to know you better. I want to read your story.


“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32

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