What Is a Six-Word Memoir? The Brief but Powerful Story of Your Life

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See if you can tell your story in just half a dozen words.

At Reader’s Digest, we love stories. From exciting thrillers to harrowing tales of survival, stories remind us of love, loss, and what it means to be human. And a good story doesn’t have to be long. In fact, as with many things in life, sometimes less can be more. As Shakespeare’s Polonius once quipped to Hamlet, “Brevity is the soul of wit!” Enter the six-word memoir. This Hemingway-inspired writing exercise has made the rounds from universities to blogs to creative-writing contests. Find out what makes the perfect mini-memoir, and then try your hand at it!

What is the six-word memoir, exactly?

It’s a story told in only six words, of course! This activity requires writers to boil a story down to its core, then summarize it in half a dozen words. Most writers home in on a deep topic or pivotal experience, but existential themes aren’t a requirement. Common memoir themes include life and death, love, loss, and even religion. If you’re in the mood for something longer than six words, check out these 15 gripping memoirs by women who overcame the impossible.

How it all began

Author Ernest Hemingway is known for his terse writing style. Short sentences, spare descriptions, and limited adjectives set his writing apart from the more flowery novels of the early 20th century. Supposedly, Hemingway was once challenged to write an impossibly short story—a narrative in six words. His answer? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Hemingway’s tiny tale inspired fellow minimalist writers for decades. In 2006, SmithMag.net writer and editor Larry Smith sent forth a challenge to Internet users everywhere: Write their own super-short story, but this time as a biography. The six-word memoir was born.

Though Smith’s challenge initially lasted for one month, readers continued churning out small memoirs. These have been compiled in several books, including Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak by Writers Famous and Obscure and I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets: Six-Word Memoirs by Teens Famous & Obscure.

How to write your own six-word memoir

Free-writing isn’t a good strategy when brevity is the name of the game. An entire story in six words? It can feel impossible. Every word carries weight. What’s left unsaid is just as important as what’s written. You must find a way to imply the action of the story, which is easier said than done. The key is to get creative, use descriptive words, and maybe even mix in some of these funniest words from the dictionary! It’s easier to write one after you’ve read a few examples and see what works best. Get in the groove with some of our favorites below.

Example #1: Love lives on

From the collection of mini memoirs at PEN America, we love this one from Zak Nelson: “I still make coffee for two.” The fact that Nelson doesn’t reveal the backstory keeps readers wondering: What happened to the second coffee drinker? How long has he or she been gone? And why does this mysterious person still hold the author’s daily attention? For more short but insightful musings on love, take a look at these love quotes that will make you swoon.

Example #2: Try, try again

We fell head over heels for Erica Jong’s take on not giving up on love, which was also published on PEN America: “Much married, fourth time is charm.” We don’t know whether Jong was widowed or divorced, but these are the red flags that reveal a marriage is ending.

Example #3: A surprise ending

This six-word memoir from Becki Lee, which was published in It All Changed in an Instant, has a fun finale: “Found on Craigslist: table, apartment, fiance.” How charming!

Example #4: A fresh perspective

Here’s another from one of Smith’s books: “Alzheimer’s: meeting new people every day.” Memory is a slippery thing, but reading in this font could improve yours.

Example #5: Fame and friendship

A final favorite comes from Crystal Kash via PEN America: “Life behind a microphone gets lonely.” It’s all about perspective, in this instance and so many others, which is why you’ll be thinking about this one for a while. Ready for more fun with words? Discover palindrome words, pangrams, and a few dozen funny words you probably don’t know.

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Leandra Beabout
Leandra Beabout is a freelance journalist and branded content writer with a BA in English education from Indiana University. She writes about travel, health, and literature for Reader's Digest, Lonely Planet, CNN, and Literary Hub, among other publications. She is also a regular contributor to Greatist.com. Leandra is based in Indiana. Follow her on Instagram @LeandraBeabout and LinkedIn Leandrabeabout