Larry Smith, creator of the Six-Word Memoir project, wore a tee shirt that read, “Now I obsessively count the words,” in keeping with his successful effort to reduce big and often witty ideas into just six words.
Marina Rubin, author of “Stealing Cherries,” the highly acclaimed book of 74 very short stories – one page each – explained that her slogan in life is “talk less, say more.”
The two writers, in conversation with Jewish Week Culture Editor Sandee Brawarsky on Wednesday evening, discussed a wide range of topics, including Jewish influences on their work, the cultural trend in short fiction and the power of storytelling.
The program, the second of two Jewish Week Literary Summer programs, was sponsored by The Jewish Week. It marked the seventh year the program has been held at Cong. Rodeph Sholom.
Smith, a former magazine writer and editor, said he grew up “a suburban Reform Jew and hated Hebrew school.” His grandfather, Morris Smith, known to everyone in his New Jersey town, including his grandson, as “Smitty,” was his inspiration for launching his independent project.
In 2006, while walking with Smitty and marveling at how he stopped to talk with just about everyone along the way, “a light bulb went off and I realized everyone has a story to tell,” Smith said. He quit his job at ESPN and started an online magazine called Smith, with the tag line: “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?”
After 10 months of little web traffic, he came up with a contest based on the legend that Ernest Hemingway, on a challenge to write a six-word novel, offered: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.”
Smith urged readers to send in their own six-word memoirs, and by the next day he said he’d received 10,000 entries. Since then he has parlayed the idea into a series of best-selling six-word memoir collections, including one on Jewish life, and he travels the country speaking to groups, from school children to corporate executives, about the power of story telling.
He says part of the success of the six-word formula is based on “creative constraint” – the built-in limit of words – and the fact that “you don’t have to be a writer to tell a story.”
[His own story is of great interest to many fans of the Netflix comedy-drama “Orange Is The New Black.” Smith is married to Piper Kerman, whose memoir about her year in prison is the basis for the series. Jason Biggs plays Piper’s boyfriend, Larry, a Jewish writer who uses Piper’s prison experience to advance his own career. The character is based on Smith, who offered only, “It’s hard to be in someone else’s memoir.”]
One of Smith’s favorite six-word entries, of the tens of thousands received, he said, is from woman he met at a party: “From this you make a living?”
Rubin, who came to the U.S. with her family from Ukraine as a youngster, read aloud six of her stories – it didn’t take long – offering up personal experiences with a mix of humor and pathos. “I go for laughter and tears together,” she acknowledged. As for her family’s reaction to being written about in her stories – her parents were in the audience – Rubin smiled and said, “they’re over it.”
Rubin previously wrote three books of poetry. “I’m into the economy of length,” she explained. In her work, “I keep cutting and cutting.” Her new book, described as a successful example of Flash Fiction, features vignettes about the strong contrast between life in Ukraine and America. One story describes an immigrant mother, fearful of crime in New York, who gifts her new pocket book to a friend. Another finds a newly arrived family watching the film “Purple Rain,” with Prince, and wondering if the star is “black or white, man or woman, or Michael Jackson.”
At one point in the conversation Rubin noted that according to a survey, “80 percent of Americans think they have a book in them.”
Based on the evening’s discussion, the authors’ advice would be: keep it short.