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Paul Oh
Mar 01 2013

Making as Writing/Writing as Making: Six-Word Memoirs


Late to the game, I've recently become intrigued by the six-word memoir form.

Started by Smith Magazine in 2006 with the question, "Can you tell your life story in six words," the idea has gained a lot of traction. Organizations like National Public Radio have picked up on it and Smith Magazine has published Six-Word Memoir anthologies to great popularity.

For those of us on Twitter, compacting an idea - especially one as huge as a life's story - into smaller and smaller spaces is a familiar challenge. Because of the limited number to work with, each thing - character or word - becomes precious. As a former journalist, I've always appreciated brevity and - probably like any one of you - know from hard experience the difficulty of revising down to an essence of an idea.

As a reader, I find six-word memoirs to be an exercise in analyzing and interpreting not only what was included, but what had to have been left out. And I love that.

I've also become fascinated with the idea of the visual component to a six-word memoir. Almost always, it seems, as in this series posted at the NPR website, a six-word memoir will be accompanied by a powerful image that may add depth of meaning to the six words or challenge an original interpretation. Interestingly, the words seem small and almost an afterthought in the NPR example, except for the profoundness of the meaning they represent.

The video below of teen submissions similarly provides a visual narrative to the words, sometimes including movies, sometimes still images. There's a mashed up quality to the entire string of 30-plus memoirs; there is no lingering on any one piece (unless you use the pause controller). It's as though speed and brevity are a living breathing part of the experience.

In this case, the words for each teen memoir are themselves designed differently. Different fonts, different colors, different positioning. The words become part of the visual message in a way that seem to signal a critical importance, unlike the NPR example.

When I think about the creation of the six-word memoir, the "make" if you will, I find it interesting that the artful combining of image and text leads to the creation of a composition - making as writing, in other words. While at the same time the act of conceiving, revising and creating the text itself, published to a particular online form, could be described as a "make" - writing as making.

I'm still puzzling through the idea of making as writing/writing as making:

  • Is the distinction important?
  • If so, what are the implications for teaching and learning?
  • How do we help youth understand the interplay between visual rhetoric and textual rhetoric in online spaces so that they themselves can construct effective narratives and compositions?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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<p>I teach online and frequently use six-word memoirs not only as a way to introduce each other - complete with an appropriate visual - but we also use the six-word memoir format when discussing texts - again with a visual. What I find interesting (and will blog about next week when I have the energy) is that students will be much more thoughtful and introspective about explaining the choices they made for their six-word memoir w visual than if I had simply asked them to write about the original text. I think the process of the making is what is important to helping them make those connections. Too tired this Friday evening to be more coherent!</p>
<p>I love the idea of using the six-word memoir format - words and visuals - as a way to discuss and process text. Distilling an idea or set of ideas into six words - and then having an opportunity to discuss the rationale behind the choice - sounds like an incredibly powerful exercise. I'm very much looking forward to your post, Deanna.</p><p>I also had the chance to chat briefly with Brian Fay and Grant Faulkner, both of whom engage in a different form of micro-fiction. They reached out to me after I published this post. Brian engages in the #25wordstory tweets, which he started, and Grant has a beautiful site, 100wordstory.org. It would be interesting to collect here at Digital Is some of the ways in which web-based micro-fiction is used for teaching, and thought about with regard to composition and rhetoric.</p>
<p>Thanks for mentioning 100 Word Story, Paul. I'm honored.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the publisher of a very small journal that publishes very small stories, it's been interesting to me to discover how many teachers teach 100-word stories in the classroom. We often receive submissions from an entire class, and have corresponded with many teachers.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I think such short forms are liberating for students--and all writers. So many people think short shorts are easy to write just because they're short. Ironically, the opposite might be true, but still, their brevity is an invitation, and I think brevity invites such things as more intense, arresting images; attention to language and word choice; and an analysis and exploration of the rudiments of story structure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, short shorts are as much about the gaps of a story as they are about what happens, so they invite "making" around them. I'm currently working with a photographer on a series of photos combined with 100-word stories, and we offer a photo as a story prompt in each issue: http://www.100wordstory.org/photo-prompt/</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Loved the video of 6-word stories.</p>
<p>Grant</p> <p>I love your response and so agree with you on the narrative gaps being where the richness of the story often falls.</p> <p>Kevin</p>
<p>That idea of the gaps is right on. I read poetry for the gaps as well. Especially prose poetry like David Shumate's. There is a playfulness in creating gaps of just the right dimensions.&nbsp;</p> <p>As for the 25-word stories (#25wordstory), the thing I like best about the form is the restrictiveness of it. I have an idea, write it out, then have to go back into it and think about pruning away the extra characters and getting it to exactly 25 words. Those restrictions, which at first feel foolish and capricious, turn out to be inigorating (even as they are still capricious).&nbsp;</p> <p>Grant, I'll be checking in with the 100-word stories and digging out my old portable hard drive to find the ones I wrote years ago. And anyone who wants to read good #25wordstory examples, just needs to follow Kevin. He is the master.&nbsp;</p>
<p>I've long been inspired by both Brian and Grant and their short-fiction (quickfiction? flashfiction?) projects. They both deserve the shout-out here.</p> <p>Kevin</p>
<p>I just want to echo your point about the way that the visual design and the words engage young writers in ways that move beyond the text. I wonder if it has to do with the limited text of the six word memoir, and if the image/video/audio/whatever provides another inroad for students to express the meaning behind the words. I also wonder the opposite: will the media overtake the words for some students, so that the balance of meaning shifts towards the design more than the words? (And if so, is that bad?)</p> <p>Kevin</p>
<p>First, let me share my Six Word Memoir from the NWP/Thimble Hack site.</p> <p><a href="https://thimble.webmaker.org/p/fee9/">https://thimble.webmaker.org/p/fee9/</a></p> <p>I've been using the Six Word Memoir format all this month (March) for Slice of Life with Stacey and Ruth over at <a href="http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/">Two Writing Teachers</a>, and I'm torn about about it.</p> <p>One hand, it's such a great exercise in restraint. Every word counts. And you have to think of nuance, and inference, and as much about what is not being said as what is being said. When I have done similar activities with my students, this is the main difficulty and what i find fascinating, six word memoirs (and 25 word stories) delineate a clear line between my sixth graders who are moving into critical and complex thinking, and those who are not yet there yet.</p> <p>What I am beginning to find with Slice of Life is that the contraints are becoming more and more confining for me, and I am doubting my plan for a month of six word memoirs. (See my <a href="http://storify.com/dogtrax/kevin-s-slices-of-life">Storify collection of my Slice of Life Six Word Memoirs</a>) Every time I publish the six words, I feel the need to couch what I meant to say in more words. (I have even added audio explanations for some of the slices.) Maybe a month of writing in six words wasn't the way to go for someone who lives to write long streams of ideas. Or maybe it is the perfect plans. (See my confusion?)</p> <p>:)</p> <p>As for the Thimble site, I really liked it, and see how it would be a good introduction to learning about the coding infrastructure of a webpage with a limited writing assignment. The guiding text was useful and easy to use, and the hardest part was finding an image that would work for me. Some were too light. Some, too dark. Design elements crept into my six word memoir, overshadowing the writing at some points. This is not bad, but certainly it is very interesting, Paul.</p> <p>I hope others share out their use of six word memoirs, and how technology can become more integrated into that writing adventure.</p> <p>Kevin</p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
<p>Brilliant effort, One can be more informative as this.</p>