'Write as short as you can'

A collection of six-word mini-memoirs.

Courtesy of Harper Collins
Not Quite What I Was Planning by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser

Not Quite what I was Planning

Editors: Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser

Norman Mailer, a writer often noted for excess verbiage, wrote a poem in 1966 called "The shortest novel of them all." It clocked in at a mere 80 words. Yet today, it seems a relic of the era of typewriters and mimeographs. In other words, way too long for this new collection of ultrashort literature, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.

These mini-memoirs are six words, tops. Close to 800 were collected from a contest sponsored by online Smith magazine. Some are poignant; others are forgettable. There's chef Mario Batali ("Brought it to a boil, often"), chanteuse Aimee Mann (the original article incorrectly cited Amy Winehouse) ("Couldn't cope, so I wrote songs"), and graffiti artist Mare 139 ("Wasn't noticed so I painted trains").

But the most telling briefs describe mundane, everyday truths: "Alive 38 years, feels like 83." "Grading AP essays, I crave Tolstoy." "Civil servant answers phones after five."

Not all the six-worders are clever or pithy and the book's attempts at visual gimmicks detract from the tight precision of the memoirs. Still, the authors' skill in parsing phrases is admirable, entertaining, and quite practical in a world of text messaging, blogging, and Twitter (where character limits are set at 140.)

Why only six words? The idea apparently stemmed from a six-word "novel" by Ernest Hemingway: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Since its publication, millions have left six-word comments about "Not Quite What I Was Planning." Others typed out four-word film reviews and Found Magazine is now sponsoring a six-word photo-captioning contest.

This trend toward succinct prose has been brewing for the past 10 years. Shortly after the publication of Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones's 1996 anthology, "In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction," the online journal Brevity began soliciting contributions of 750 words or less. Other Web-based literary journals followed, including flashquake, which now hosts a microflash fiction contest with a 150-word limit. The website PostSecret, which collects anonymous stories on handmade 4-by-6-inch postcards, published its first anthology in 2005.

Six words for scribes in a world with so micro an attention span? "Write as short as you can."

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