Larry Smith of SMITH Magazine keyed into the popularity and resonance of short, pithy bios even before “tweet” made its way firmly into the vernacular. In a perpetual homage to Ernest Hemingway, his SMITH Magazine is the progenitor of the six-word memoir. The Rumpus asked him a few questions about his site, his future plans, and his current squabbles.
The Rumpus: You started SMITH magazine 3 years ago. What have you learned about starting up such a venture? When you originally started the website, what did you think it would be about?
Larry Smith: I’ve learned that you have to love what you do, and wake up every day obsessed or you’re sunk. That a startup, or any personal passion you’re trying to turn into a working living, is both a marathon and a sprint, but probably more of a marathon. That you have to remain flexible and you have to listen to your audience, at least if what you’re trying to do is find an audience.
The concept remains largely the same as it was when I ran around the publishing world in early 2003 trying to get funding or find a publishing partner. The explosion in technology has fueled a golden age of storytelling, from blogs to Facebook’s 25 Random Things to movies on phones and Flips to every other form of storytelling under the sun. No one bought this idea six years ago, so my original notion of a print-web, user-generated editor-curated magazine had to change. I finally listened to my cofounder, Tim Barkow (an old friend and early Wired editor) and wised up and launched SMITH as an online only publication in January 2006.His advice was similar to what I got from some friends and mentors like Dave Eggers and Shoshana Berger: if you want to do something, don’t wait around for the venture money to come in or some publisher to sign you up, just start.So that’s what we did.
Rumpus: How did the idea for the six-word memoir come about?
Smith: Legend has it Ernest Hemingway was challenged to write a story in only six words. He came up with “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Others had played with the six-word story form, but no one had re-imagined the Hemingway story as “six-word memoirs” as we did in November 2006. We did three smart/lucky things back then. First, we asked some of our favorite writers to submit their six-word memoirs. Then, we put the call out to our community, one comprised of largely non-professional writers. We said, “Hey, check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s and Sebastian Junger’s and Joyce Carol Oates’s six-word memoirs. When you submit yours, you’ll be right up there on SMITH with them.” The idea is that famous folks provide a little inspiration and a little aspiration. We also got on Twitter just as it was launching and sent out one six-word memoir a day to SMITH‘s Twitter followers.This was all very new and fun for both us and Twitter in the company’s nascent days, so they promoted us, we promoted them, bloggers picked up on the six-word challenge, and it starting flying across the web and onto cell phones, and we were off and running.
Rumpus: How do you handle submissions? Can anyone publish a story on SMITH?
Smith: Anyone can submit a story to SMITH. When you do, whether a six-word memoir, a 100-word story about being pregnant, a 400-word Brush With Fame, or a 2,500-word memoir-in-progress in our My Life So Far story project, you hit one powerful button: publish. And—poof—you’re published. We read every story and then act as a combination of editors and curators, featuring stories (some daily, some weekly, depending on the section). If there’s a piece in the “My Life So Far” project, for example, that we like but think needs some work, we’ll be in touch with the writer and suggest changes or say, “We’d like to feature this, but there’s some grammar stuff and maybe the opening section could be fleshed out a little.” — that sort of thing. It’s a light touch.
Rumpus: Your website mentions the possibility of a print copy of SMITH. Any plans for this to happen soon?
Smith: I’d love to do a quarterly maga-book combining SMITH current and totally new content, and it could happen. But for now we’re focusing on making our online community as good as it can be and making more books.
What’s nice is that since we launched, the gap between the cachet of print and online publishing is closing: being published on a well-respected online magazine or solely on the website of a print publication doesn’t feel second-tier at all. At the same time, we expect more of our writers—better writing, cleaner copy, few factual errors.
Rumpus: Tell me about the book you just released — Six-Word Memoirs on Love & Heartbreak. How has it been received?
Smith: People like it. Some are surprised that it’s quite an intense, heartbreaking little book. We could have done a book that was, to use one of Six Word Memoir’s co-editor Rachel Fershleiser’s phrases, “all hearts and unicorns” but that wouldn’t reflect what people sent in. There’s a lot of heartbreak out there—in the world, on SMITH, in this book. So it’s a more authentic reading experience, and better book, for it. And all for just $10….
Rumpus: In a recent ad campaign, McGill University used the six-word form to describe faculty and students. Could you talk about your conflict with McGill?
Smith: In six words, “A mountain made out of molehills.” All we asked from McGill was a reference to the inspiration for their six-word memoir project—just as SMITH references and credits Hemingway at every turn—and they seemed to think this was asking a lot. A reporter in Toronto called me about it. I said I’d prefer to let McGill and SMITH work this out on our own, but he was determined to do a piece. It’s fine now—we’ve gotten a mention and a link on McGill’s site. We work with schools and nonprofits all the time doing six-word projects, without pay and with great pleasure. But when someone essentially mirrors the exact “six-word memoir” concept, we’d just like a nod—it’s the right thing to do.
Rumpus: Recently you held a contest with the National Constitution Center calling for people to write six words to inspire America. These entries were meant as suggestions for President Obama’s inauguration speech. How big was the response to this call for submissions?
Smith: We received around 4,000 submissions, and lots of great six-word speeches for President Obama. You can check out the winning six entries here. Three of my three favorite that the judges didn’t pick were, “And now for something completely different,” “Trust me, you’ll like Michelle better,” and the perfectly goofy, “I can’t do it Obama self.” Good stuff.
Rumpus: Any chance of a six-word memoir from President Obama?
Smith: I’ve been asking for two years. A couple years ago, while in a hotel gym hanging out with indoor football league referees for a story for ESPN Magazine, I heard The Voice coming from down the hall. He was giving a speech to a labor union. I walked in (in my sweats and t-shirt) and scribbled a request for a six-word memoir from the then senator. I got right up to the front of the crowd after his speech and handed the note to one of his people. But, alas, I never heard back. Still, I’m pretty happy with the way it all worked out for the country.
Rumpus: Are you working on any projects other than SMITH magazine?
Smith: SMITHteens.com is starting to take off, so we’ll be putting more energy into that—though in truth the teens just like to do their own thing there and prefer old editors like myself stay out of it.
I have a small hand in Jason Bitner’s Cassette From My Ex project, which is a site and forthcoming book. People send in their cassettes from exes, we digitize them, and run the music and an essay from the person who received the mixtape about what the music and the boy or girl meant to them then and now.
Tim Barkow and I are also hatching up a new idea that’s totally different than SMITH, which combines what I guess we call “service” or “usefulness” with storytelling. This project will surely be another marathon and a sprint.
Juliet Litman contributed to this article.