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Poets and Writers Toolkit: Six-Word Memoirs


six word memoir

Our Poets and Writers Toolkit series brings fresh ideas and tools to your writing. We’ve talked about the way certain paper sparks our creativity, and we’ve shared the mind mapping process to help you shepherd your creative ideas into reality. Today, Charity Singleton Craig introduces six-word memoir.


“Writing six word memoirs is addictive,” Kelli wrote on our writing group’s Facebook wall, as a six-word memoir. I introduced the concept during a recent group meeting, and with a willing and captive audience, I asked them each to write at least one.

“I couldn’t stop writing them,” I told the group, explaining the assignment. As I read the 11 six-word quips I had written in succession, I couldn’t help but pause around number 9 with a comment. “I know, I know. It’s probably not really fair to write so many.”

“I was just about to say that,” Kelli said.

The six-word memoir began as a group-think project in November 2006 when Smith Magazine asked readers to submit their pithy prose. Claiming inspiration from the legendary six-word challenge taken up by Ernest Hemingway in which he supposedly wrote this six word story, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” Smith Magazine went on to publish several books loaded with the happy, sad, and mystifying six-word shorts.

But what’s the point? I wondered, after my 11th memoir. Is this a writing genre in its own right? Is it a worthwhile prompt? Is there poetry hidden in those six-word sentences? Or are six-word memoirs just another stunt? I took the concept to my writing group to find out.

First, we had to define our terms: Is this a life statement? Or how we are feeling right now? Or what? “Memoir” was hanging them up.

We agreed to “memoir” versus “biography” because we don’t have to capture a lifetime, just a segment of a life, however short. This was my own interpretation after initially struggling to capture my entire existence in just six words.

With that brief explanation, each member of the group wrote for a just a minute or two. Then, we shared.

Kelli read hers first. She started with, “Hyperbolic, Metamorphosis, antidisestablishmentarianism, there, that’s six.” I started feeling a little guilty, like I had forced something on the others that they really didn’t want to do. But by the sixth little memoir gracing Kelli’s bakery napkin, I felt relief: “This napkin poetry makes my day.”

“It’s funny what surfaces. I feel like deep stuff was surfacing,” Jen observed about her own six-word memoirs. She also wrote six in the short time we allotted for the writing. We all nodded in agreement with her third one, “I love sleep most of all.”

When it was all over, I wondered: had we written that day, or just played? Did it really matter? Maybe the six-word memoir is a provocative bit of word play all its own. Or maybe it’s the beginning of something bigger. Either way, this little tool has definitely given me a place to turn when words, or more, need to emerge.

Here are my recent six-word memoirs about six-word memoirs:

Glad this is not a biography.

I wonder why only six words?

Hemingway knew how to write stories.

Do multiple six word memoirs count?

Can a memoir be a question?

How many memoirs in six years?

Perhaps you would like to try your hand at a six-word memoir (or six)? Share with us in the comments.

Photo by Horia Varlan, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.


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Your Comments

51 Comments so far

  1. L. L. Barkat says:

    I love “Can a memoir be a question?” which is exactly what I was toying with over on Facebook when I shared this post.

    Except I was thinking, “Can a six-word memoir be a question?” Which is different.

    Since 2008, I have produced 3 memoirs and a memoir-ish-fiction thing. Can a memoir be a question? I think mine are both questions and answers. But I love the idea of one standing out as more question than answer.

    What do you think? :)

    • I also love this notion.

      Also what Tracy Kidder says: “For the writer, the ultimate reward of memoir may be to produce a work in which the facts are preserved but the experience is transformed.”

      Six words only get you started, and they always (for me) raise questions.

      • I think most memoirs probably start out as questions, for sure. How did this experience or period shape me? But the great memoirs also leave their readers with the same question – how will my experience shape yours?

        I think memoirs also have a lot of answers. Yours, LL, have the best of both in all of them.

  2. L.L., do you remember in my interview with you, I asked you to describe your voice? You gave me 6 words:
    “Cinnamon. Or maybe almonds. Okay, both.”

    That was way back in 2009. Kind of fun to re-read it.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      oh gosh, what a memory you have :)

      I wonder if I would still describe my voice that way?

      Could be kinda cool to do angled memoirs: describe your voice, your life in the body, your life in a tea cup, your life with water, etc.

      Megan, are you up for the tea one? (love, love your tea and more tea memoir)

      • I love the idea of angled memoirs: I think this might help define and refine who we are, what we are doing.

        I saw one author suggest the six-word memoir as a daily journal prompt. Others use them as life statements.

        I think the possibilities are endless.

  3. Donna says:

    Ooo I love this: Can a memoir be a question?

    6 word memoir – packing power of a whole story in just six words. That’s harder than the 140 characters of twitter! I gravitate toward challenges that force a framework of saying more with less. And, how do we count words where hyphons are used (she said with an eyebrow wiggle)? ;)

  4. Here’s four:

    We tried to be a family.

    The dogs like to walk anyway.

    She kept writing, no matter what.

    Tea and tea and more tea.

  5. Kathryn Neel says:

    Living the questions, living the answers.

  6. Kathryn Neel says:

    Tolerates fools almost not at all.

  7. Donna says:

    Playing with the Six Word Memoir is kind of like m & m’s…. one is just never enough! I have three to share (the rest I ate). ;)

    Chasing what was never really gone.
    Hiding truth: Delusional purchase of time.
    One coin. Two sides. Chaos. Stillness.

  8. Wendy Mauro says:

    Love the challenge of brevity –

    will there be more? she pondered

    buying time, spending time, making memories

  9. And five from me…

    1. Here I am. Here I go.

    2. Water. Woods. Words. What. When. Why.

    3. I messed up. I got up.

    4. Letting the liver tell the story. (Stole that from Buried Stories)

    5. Books. Books. Books. Never enough books.

  10. Laura Brown says:

    May I have a deadline extension?

    Driving forward, looking in the rearview.

    Jet bookbuying speed, stroll reading speed.

    Middle-aged body, middle school insides.

    Sorry I squeezed them to death.

    Can we press the restart button?

  11. Hard work that feels like play.

  12. Tension of unresolved chords making music.

    (Kelli was right. This is addictive.)

  13. Jon Lewis says:

    pace yourself you are only 50

  14. A poet and don’t know it..


    Why did I write a book?

    Why don’t I write another one?

    I’m having another cup of coffee..

  15. Mary says:

    I have a silly question that is bugging me a lot. Do you know if numbers count as words? I mean numbers like 1,2,3.

    I wrote this “He loved her to death. Literally” Not the most creative thing on earth .. Hopefully, It will get better : )

  16. Mary – I couldn’t get a firm answer, though on the six-word memoir site (Smith Magazine), I saw a six-word memoir that had “250″ as one of the six words. So I think you can use numbers, but they count among the six. The sneaky way to get more words in is to use hyphenated words, nouns and verbs masquerading as adjectives by stringing them together. Happy writing!

  17. Shelly Faber says:

    ‘stuck in the middle with you’

    Love the idea of doing these. Sparks many ideas. Thanks!

  18. Childhood brutal. Finally free. Blossoming – furiously.

  19. Mikels Skele says:

    Born, will die. Currently somewhere between.

  20. Bethany R. says:

    Learning loads from these toolkit posts–

    My only nine months without cheese–

    Where can I go that’s silent?

    When did the Peace Lily brown?

    My son remembers feeling happy here.

    Have I already fulfilled my obligations?


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  2. Some Six-Word Memoirs - Sandra Heska King | Sandra Heska King - April 12, 2013

    [...] running through my head until I sat down here. Then Laura reminded me I hadn’t written my six-word memoir [...]

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