“Brevity: a good thing in writing. Exploited by texters, gossip columnists, haikuists. Not associated with the biography genre. But then – why shouldn’t it be? Life expectancies rise; attention spans shrink. Six words can tell a story.” -Lizzie Widdicombe, “Say It All in Six Words,” The New Yorker
In the spirit of (shameless) cross- and self-promotion, I’d like to direct your attention to this article I wrote for SMITH on Tuesday, Notes from the Master of the Six-Word Meme. Yes, that’s me. The Master of the Meme. I’m thinking of putting that on my business cards. I guess I have to get business cards first. A meme, as I explain in the article, is the internet’s version of a chain letter. The one I’ve been following for the past four months asked people to take our concept – the six-word memoir – and write their own, tagging five other bloggers with the task. It’s easy, it’s fun, and people seem to love it; googling “six word memoir” and “meme” together yields 109,000 results. I’m not saying I’ve read every single one. But I have seen hundreds, thousands – many – and, for better or for worse, I’ve learned a whole lot about the blogosphere along the way. I’m not going to say anymore here, but please click the link if you’re interested. Summing it all up over at SMITH has helped me to put the entire experience in perspective.
Not Quite What I Was Planning, SMITH’s book of six-word memoirs, was a huge hit: New York Times bestseller, media darling, internet phenomenon, etc. It almost goes without saying that a sequel’s currently in the works. The next book will be about love and heartbreak – and, in turn, about sex, relationships, and everything in between. These new six-word memoirs span a broad spectrum, from the saccharine (“He holds me when we sleep”) to the cynical (“Fished him out. Threw him back”). The memoir-gathering process was similar to the last one: anyone could submit six words on love to the website and celebrities were hunted down and begged/courted/convinced to contribute. The editors took the final list to the publisher this past week, and because they’re marketing geniuses, the book will come out right before Valentine’s Day.
About a month ago, my boss sent me an email with an alarming request: “I’m moving as fast as I can to reel in some famous folks, from writers to politicians to your basic interesting celebrity. It’s hard but doable to get famous folks, and I’d love you to help me do this.” He included a list of people that would be awesome to reach – Barack Obama, Elizabeth Taylor – and a sample pitch letter. I was terrified. Celebrities? How am I supposed to get one word out of a celebrity, let alone six? My boss was encouraging and reassuring, but my first pitch emails were shaky, pleading messes. “Sorry to bother you, but…” If you had come to me a month ago and told me that pretty soon I’d be barging into famous comedians’ dressing rooms, I certainly wouldn’t have believed you. And yet.
The other day I went down to Palo Alto to see Lewis Black “in conversation” at a Silicon Valley Commonwealth Club event. First of all, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so much profanity in one hour – and I watch a lot of HBO. He wouldn’t let us record the conversation, which was just as well; no radio station would be able to broadcast it. When I was fifteen or sixteen, my friends and I absolutely loved Lewis Black (my favorite bit? “If it weren’t for my horse, I wouldn’t have spent that year in college.”), so seeing him (from the front row, no less) fulfilled an old dream. And you know, part of me thought, Wouldn’t it be great if I could get his six-word memoir? Because, as I’ve been hunting down sex columnists and the like, six-word memoirs have kind of taken over my brain. There was no logical way to get six words out of Lewis Black right then and there. Even if I had him autograph a copy of his book (I did), the pitch takes a minute or two, or a brief email. There was only one solution. I would have to hustle.
Okay, I’ll admit: my first hustling experience wasn’t all that difficult. I asked the Silicon Valley programming director if I could speak to Lewis Black’s manager. She directed me to his media handler – leather jacket, long white ponytail – who said, “Yeah sure, just go backstage.” So I went back, found his manager, and gave him the pitch. I felt like such a grown-up. We shook hands and I promised to send a follow-up email. I had crossed the final hurdle; if I’m willing to be so tactless and pushy in person, I feel like I have a future in this business. I was hoping that Lewis Black’s six words would show up in my inbox the next morning, but I’m sorry to report that I haven’t received anything yet. He’s on the road and probably has a million things to do; I’ll give him a week or two.
But I think that these two things – hustling for Lewis Black and reading thousands of six-words across the internet – make great bookends for the entire experience. It’s wonderful that celebrities contribute, and it’s a hard process, tracking down contact information, pitching, begging, and sending follow-ups. The high of recognition, of success, of having a big name you can toss around when you’re selling the book – it’s all great, it really is. But the majority of really wonderful memoirs come from ordinary people, created and submitted in the populist spirit that drew me to SMITH in the first place. I love that these books – and really, the entire magazine – manage to combine all of this so seamlessly.