A Life in Six Words

Our first assignment is to email our professor with a six-word memoir and a “visual image of any kind” that symbolizes our life.


I always draw a blank on these things.

The six-word memoir is an interesting concept, and I’d forgotten about it until now. The origins, best I can tell, are intertwined the famous (possibly mythical) six- (or is it nine?)-word Ernest Hemmingway story, produced in response to a challenge.

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Depressed yet?

Anyway, there’s an allure to synthesizing one’s autobiography in this way; I think there’s an idea that to do so burns away the unnecessary – the adjectives and conditional clauses with which we would seek to explain, rationalize, deflect, distract or otherwise obscure our true selves.

On the other hand, isn’t a life more than six words? Doesn’t the complexity of this world and our interactions with it demand a more complete answer than a sextet of one- or two-syllable utterances?

Of course, a good writer – or, more accurately, a certain type of thinker who can write passably well – can manage pretty well to bridge those conflicting arguments. Here are some examples briefly culled from the Six-Word Project:

  • Hated my face; looks like his.
  • Shirt: souvenir. Shoes: Walmart. Soul: PRADA.
  • Five years’ remission. Grateful every day.
  • Driving from epicenter to the eye.
  • Life story rated G. Big disappointment.
  • Barely got along. Now her caregiver.

The best ones are the most poignant, which makes sense, I think: There’s so much emptiness left when you boil a life away and leave just six core words, one fleeting thought. There’s something missing, and often – like in the pseudo-Hemmingway story – what’s missing are the simple joys, the trivialities, the walks in the park, the sunsets, the good movies with good friends, the laughter of unimportant questions. All that’s left is one single moment, and many times – most of the time, even – our lives are changed, shaped and defined by the bad moments. They are what make us stronger, give definition to the good times and provide signposts for ourselves and others. We would be nothing without them, which is why we focus on them, yet our lives are nothing without everything else.

I have plenty of baggage, and if I were to be honest, I’d have to acknowledge the first three words of mine (at least!) would be pretty sad. But this will be read aloud in class, which presents another barrier: No one is going to be truly honest. They’re not going to be talking about doubt or struggles or addictions or broken homes or lost friends or tragic mistakes. It’s another needle to thread, another line to walk, another wall to climb.

So here are some briefly considered, hastily written ideas, from which I might choose one. I’d love to hear your feedback and hear any you have about yourself.

  • Escaped the quicksand; in the shower.
  • Thankful for grace I cannot understand.
  • Amazing wife. Wonderful children. Overwhelmingly blessed.
  • Knew everything. Now I don’t. Humbled.
  • Too complicated for six-word summaries.
(I probably won’t use the last one; there’s something to be said for not hacking off your professor on the first day of school!)

3 thoughts on “A Life in Six Words”

  1. The smart aleck in me has some answers:
    “Not pretentious enough for this exercise.”
    “Sentence fragments briefly useful; still irritating.”
    “It led to this assignment. Thrillsville.”
    “Not over yet; call you back.”

    I had a brief exchange with Royce Money which lends me one. He asked me “Is your whole life a cartoon?” The assignment doesn’t specify that the memoir would be from my own point of view, and it continues to be a fair question.

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