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From This You Make A Living?

Larry SmithFilmed at Limmud New York

We’re all storytellers. And no story is more important than the story of our own lives. Yet so often our own story is the one that’s hardest to tell. What's so wonderful about the six-word limitation—whether about life overall or one aspect of it such as faith, is that it forces each of us to figure out what matters most. The Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life project asks each of us to seek the essence of Jewish life in half-a-dozen well-chosen words. Thousands of people have already responded and through this simple prompt we see —person by person, six words by six words—both our unique differences and what unites us all.  What’s more, for Jews and non-Jews alike, in synagogues and churches, at Shabbat dinner and lobster bakes, among the most Orthodox and most secular, this simple, accessible form becomes a catalyst for larger discussions about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re headed, as individuals and as one people.

Larry Smith is the Founder and Editor of SMITH Magazine, the home of the Six-Word Memoir project and hub of a passionate community of storytellers. Larry has edited nine books in the bestselling Six-Word Memoir series, including “Oy! Only Six? Why Not More? Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life,” as well as an anthology, “The Moment: Wild, Poignant, Life-Changing Stories from 125 Writers and Artists Famous & Obscure.” He’s been described as on “a quest to spark the creativity of aspiring writers” by Oprah Magazine and has given talks about storytelling in places such as ESPN, Twitter, and PopTech, as well as in nonprofits, synagogues and classrooms for audiences of every age and description.

Everyone has a story. It’s a simple idea I learnt from my grandfather, Maurice Smith, born in Russia in 1911 in a small suburb outside of Minsk. Here we are in his beloved Atlantic City boardwalk. Walking down the boardwalk with Maurice Smith who everyone, including me called ‘Smitty’. It was like walking through London or New York City with a cute baby or a small dog, you couldn’t get anywhere because he knew everyone and everyone wanted to talk to ’Smitty’. He knew people from his town where he had a small pharmacy called ‘Smith Brothers’ and he stood on a podium like this and told stories in a way that pharmacists don’t do anymore. He knew people from his Temple in South Jersey and Pharmacy school and he loved sharing stories and one day as we walked down the boardwalk in Atlantic City I realised something, I didn’t actually know Smitty’s whole story, I knew the basics; that he came over from Russia when he was four and that his father sold eggs in Philadelphia and they sent back money, you know the story, to bring over other family members back into America. And I was a journalist at the time, a job that is to ask questions, be curious but I didn’t know the real details of Smitty’s story, so one day I said to Smitty, “tell me your story, start from the beginning” and he said something fascinating. “My story, who would be interested in that?” and so I tricked him, I said, “You know I have this new video camera, can you just talk for a couple of minutes into it, I want to see if it works.” And two and a half hours later the man stopped talking. What I learnt that day was, everyone has a story we have to remember to ask. Now, around the time 9/11 happened the biggest story of our lifetime and how did the New York Times, the newspaper of note, choose to cover it? Well, lots of ways but the way that had people on the subway sobbing was a package called ‘Portraits of Grief’, ‘Portraits of Grief’, everyone from the Captain of Industry in the top floor of the World Trade Centre to the janitor sweeping it up, they each got an obituary. They asked about their lives and everyone got three hundred words because everyone has a life that’s interesting if you ask. I was working on what I like to call, my fancy magazine track, I worked at Men’s Journal and ESPN Magazine as a writer and editor and I loved it but I was drawn time and again to these personal stories and so I did something arguably a little nuts, I quit and for no money I started my own website, I called it Smith magazine in honour of Smitty, the tagline, ‘Everyone has a story, what’s yours?’ We invited people of all walks of life to tell true personal stories about their lives and we gave them a nice looking place to do it. And we had a lot of different story prompts, but the one that really took off was actually inspired by the old Hemmingway legend, as the story goes, Hemmingway was once challenged to write a whole novel in just six words. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The six word novel. We were storytelling site but we were all about memoirs so I challenged my community to write the six word stories of their life, not a novel but the six word memoir. And I went home for Thanksgiving, it was right before Thanksgiving, and when I checked my email, back then you just sent it to me, there were a thousand, six word memoirs waiting for me and they kept coming. It turned out the constraint fuelled creativity, it didn’t inhibit it and then people wanted to tell the story of their life but they needed a certain kind of prompt to make it a little easier. And we suspected that people would write some fun stuff and some literary stuff. The response to that is; ask my teenager, she knows everything. But it was fascinating how deep it got and how quickly. You could tell the whole life arch in just six words. And the different ways people interpreted the prompt, some people sent in illustrated six word memoirs like young Rachel Ruiz Levit, a senior at the Parsons School of Design who tells us; Half Jewish Half Catholic Entirely Mexican. So that was 6 years ago and since that simple prompt there has been 700,000 six word memoirs on Smith Magazine and a second site I started called, Smith Teens, we’ve done a best- selling book series, a board game, it’s even been translated into Japanese as a way to learn idiomatic English and I thought a lot about it and why did it work? Why is it sustainable? And a couple of things, well first of all, it’s really simple; a blank page is a scary thing for all of us, writers or not writers but what is filled up in just 6 words, that’s not so scary and you can cross out your six word memoir and write another one, some do hundred or even thousands of six word memoirs. Community is so important to what I do, I spend the first hour of every day just answering emails, questions and taking suggestion from my community, which has now grown to hundreds of thousands of people. This is the kind of community member I started to fall in love with, Beth Carter. When our first book came out my publisher at Harper Collins sent us on a book tour, places like New York, San Francisco, London, the big city’s but we weren’t going to Beth Carter’s small town in Missouri and Beth was distraught and she emailed and she’s what is called a power user, she’s done thousands of six word memoirs and she’s in touch a lot and (if you do what I do you better love community and I really do). She said to me sheepishly, “well, would it be ok if I held my own book reading at my local book store?” I said,” Yes you can Beth Carter” and she made bookmarks with her six word memoir on it and gave them out which is, “Zip, zero, zilch nothing published yet” Conversation is so important to the six word memoir project because the six words were never intended to be the end of the story but the catalyst to start talking more. This image here is from the San Francisco music festival, they asked me if I wanted to do a six word memoir booth outside of the musical offerings and I said, “Sure” so I did something very high tech; I took two clothes lines and I attached them to two poles and I put down construction paper and sharpies and I put up a sing, “What’s your six word memoir” And I sat at a desk and drank beers in the sun and people came and of course they knew what to do and they wrote things like, “Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends” and under those clothes lines someone next to that girl said, “I don’t know you but my sister has cancer” and they would talk. And a little punk kid wrote, “ I have Asperger’s, what’s your excuse?” and the memoirs literally blew in the wind, the self – expression blew in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags and under this self-expression conversations blossomed. When you have a project it certainly helpful to have celebrities involved for a couple of reasons; first of all, celebrities like Nora Ephron here, who tells us in 6 words, “Secret of life: marry an Italian”( Good advice from a Jew) tells us in six words but celebrities are great because yes you get some attention and some extra press if you have celebrities in your books and your project but that isn’t what really interested me, what I liked was that Nora Ephron and Stephen Colbert and Frank McCourt they get six words and so does Beth Carter, the storytelling playing field in my book, is a level one. It’s also helpful to have a Jewish mother and the co-editor of our first book is Jewish as well and we had two in our court. I am pretty sure that no entity moves information faster than a Jewish mother including the internet. My mom had friends from college and from high school who had columns in small newspapers in Massachusetts writing about the six word memoir project before Harper Collins get a Press Release out. But the truth is everyone has a Jewish mother, probably everyone here but really we all have Jewish mothers and by that I mean people want to help us with our projects and sometimes artists or people who have passion projects they get shy and they don’t ask people to help them, help them promote their ideas, evangelise for great stuff but the thing is you have to give the folks who are trying to help you out, tools they can work with so my mom does not have a Facebook page or a Twitter feed, thank God but she has a purse and in that purse are postcards about the project and she gives them to her hairdressers and people at the craft show in Philadelphia and her book club. And the teenagers, they have Facebook pages and Tumblr accounts and they have virtual badges that say, “Proud and published memoir is it.” So you give people the tools that they can work with and you let them help you. Now, Google alerts are a wonderful thing, when the project started to take off I put out a Google alert on six word memoir and now I saw how the idea was spreading beyond the walls of my office and what I knew. I found out that priests and rabbis were asking their congregations to distil faith in just six words because it makes sense right? Faith is hard, it’s complex but we have just six words to atone and every Yom Kippur I get Google alerts on rabbis across the country asking for six words of atonement and a Reverend in Louisville said, “What would Jesus do if he came back and said, I’m going to describe my life in just six words.” But it got beyond faith, Suicide Prevention Centres and Speed Dating Sessions were using six words as a way to catalyse conversations and break the ice but among the man unexpected placed the six word memoir project has gone and me with it is the classroom, it’s the most rewarding thing about the six word memoir project. I’ve been in many classrooms: I’ve had the pleasure of being in third grade classrooms in small towns where we go around the room and we share six word memoirs and I say, you know “Honey, what’s your six word memoir?” and I swear a little girl looked me in the eye and said, “nine years staked within my soul” and then another girl said, “life is better in soft pyjamas” She’s 8 years old and she’s a Zen Master and she has no idea. And that happens across the world, it really does. This is a classroom at Brandeis called the Bima programme, it’s where high school kids can go and take writing classes and this is one of the first times I did this six word Jewish challenge and young Noa, aged 15, said “One small Jew, one loud family” and then we did the six word Shabbat Challenge where we learnt, “Light is off, find a goy” The Jewish question is so perfect for this six word memoir project because yes we’re a literary people and yes, we’re a wordy people but we’re a complex, kooky, funny, fascinating faith and we can define it in so many different ways and so I wanted my next project to examine six words on Jewish life and a number of them are in this book and want to take you on a little six word journey; birth, growing pains, rights of passage, rights of passage and growing pains, the tough choices we must make as Jews, defining Judaism in a way we’d like to, on our own terms, celebration and prayer looking for love and creating a family, that’s my mother’s six word memoir on Jewish life. History and service and sadness and death and from Barry Blitt , the illustrator, the whole megillah. You know, for me six words on Jewish life works so well because it’s a way to define our own faith in a unique way but altogether it’s a communal celebration of who we are and community is so important to this project. When I forget about why I love this project I look at that picture, those are twenty six word memoirs that my community wrote about my son when he was born; things like, “What, not 6 pounds, 6 ounces” and “miracle baby born, has sixth sense” I don’t know any of those people but they got together and made this for me and my son. And in the end I think this project works so well because of these simple six words; Everyone has a story. What’s yours?
Thank you.

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