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The Six-Word Memoir: An Exercise on Short, Powerful Stories

POSTED ON Jan 22, 2024

Nicole Ahlering

Written by Nicole Ahlering

Home > Blog > Memoir > The Six-Word Memoir: An Exercise on Short, Powerful Stories

Have you heard of the Six-Word Memoir? Exactly what it sounds like, it’s six words that sum up your life, a phrase that was officially coined by Larry Smith in 2006 and has become a global phenomenon.

Sounds challenging, doesn’t it? 

Smith, editor of SMITH magazine, asked his readers to describe their life in six words, and the idea stuck. Since then, thousands of folks have submitted their own Six-Word Memoirs.

Need an example? Perhaps the most famous Six-Word Memoir is “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” often attributed to Ernest Hemingway.

We think you should try writing a Six-Word Memoir too.


Why should you write a Six-Word Memoir?

In short, it can be a great tool for helping you hone in on your message, purpose or self-perception—all critical to writing a full-length memoir of your own. Consider it an essential exercise for understanding how to start a memoir.

Here are a few other reasons to do it: 

  • It helps you figure out the core theme of your experiences. When you have so few words to summarize your entire life, you’re forced to look at the commonalities between everything you’ve experienced. Therein lies your core book theme
  • It encourages clarity. It's easy to get verbose when we’re writing—especially about ourselves. With six words, there’s no room for extra prose. Every word counts. 
  • It can act as a foundation for your larger memoir. Is there anything more intimidating than writing your life story? A Six-Word Memoir can create a jumping-off point for you to get started on your narrative and develop your memoir outline.
  • It can help with marketing your book. Just like professionals are encouraged to have an “elevator speech” for networking opportunities, it’s great to have a shorthand way to describe your memoir. 

How to write a Six-Word Memoir in 3 steps

Unlike some writing prompts that encourage long paragraphs, this writing exercise is meant to encourage depth yet simplicity. Don’t overthink it! You'll inevitably start with more than six words – but you'll get there in the end.

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Step 1: Reflect on your story so far

Think about significant events that have happened in your life. Ponder the emotions you’ve felt, the lessons you’ve learned, and the core themes that have occurred.

Maybe pick one particularly pivotal moment or memory.

Out of those reflections, what has had the most impact on you? What are you most inspired to share with others? These are sparks of your initial memoir ideas!

Step 2: Choose your six words 

Now is the hard part. Condense your discoveries from step one into just six words. Focus on your writing tone, the emotions you want to evoke in your reader, and the words that resonate with you most. 

Obviously, this is not the time for filler words. So make sure each word carries weight. We have a free tool that helps you improve your writing skills by rephrasing your sentences in a more concise way. Leverage tools like these!

Remember that you’ll likely have to write several Six-Word Memoirs before you land upon one you really love. That’s a very normal part of the process. 

Step 3: Edit and refine your memoir

After writing your Six-Word Memoir, take some time away from it to give your brain a break. Here at Self Publishing, we always tell our authors to “never edit while writing.”

But when you come back to it, do so with a critical eye. 

Are there words you can remove or replace with more evocative words? Are you aptly conveying your message? Is your short memoir clear and impactful? 

What are some Six-Word Memoir examples? 

Looking for some inspiration to write your Six-Word Memoir? We’ve got you covered. Here are a few: 

  • “Dreamed big, stumbled often, never stopped.” 
  • “Loved, lost, found strength in healing.”
  • “Embraced flaws, painted life with authenticity.” 
  • “Rainbows followed storms, light after darkness.” 
  • “Built bridges, burned some, found peace.” 
  • “Whispers of yesterday, echoes shaping today.” 
  • “Found true love, married someone else.”
  • “Wanderlust-filled, finally found home within myself.”
  • “Raised by wolves, now leading pack.”
  • “Failed often, succeeded where it mattered.”
  • “Danced through life's storms, found sunshine.”
  • “Lost keys, found purpose, changed locks.”
  • “Dreamed big, stumbled, rose stronger.”
  • “Broke rules, mended hearts, embraced chaos.”
  • “Quiet rebel, loud thoughts, silent victories.”
  • “Chased dreams, caught flights, built reality.”

Wow. Did reading any of these evoke some serious emotion for you? They did for me.

As you can see, many Six-Word Memoirs err on the side of poetic or esoteric. They are not literal summaries of your life in six words. That would be pretty hard to do. 

Instead, the idea is to evoke a little curiosity but have a clear intention behind your words. You can expand them into a full book later – or even publish a book of poetry!

Related: 31 Memoir Examples

What famous people have Six-Word Memoirs?

While looking for Six-Word Memoir examples, I was delighted to see that multiple well-known celebrities and famous people have accepted Larry Smith's challenge to write a short story. I loved these and I think you will too!

  • Stephen Colbert: “Well, I thought it was funny.”
  • Jane Goodall: “Motherhood, activism, discovering the unknown together.”
  • Joan Baez: “Still searching for that perfect note.”
  • Dave Eggers: “Fifteen years since last professional haircut.”
  • Joyce Carol Oates: “Revenge is living well, without you.”
  • Donald Trump: “Big hands, big hair, big ego.”
  • Whoopi Goldberg: “Everything in life is beautiful. Y'all.”
  • Sherman Alexie: “Despite illness, wife, dog survived me.”
  • Al Roker: “Loved meteorology, but storms pass by.”
  • Nora Ephron: “Secret of life: marry an Italian.”

As you can see in these examples, a Six-Word Memoir doesn't have to be deep and thought-provoking. They can be fun and silly as well.

By now the creative juices should be flowing. Now it's time to write one for yourself!

Related: The Best Celebrity Memoirs

Creative writing exercises using the Six-Word Memoir 

Why stop at writing just one Six-Word Memoir? You can write multiple of them and use them as tools to help formulate ideas for your larger book. Just like no one's life experiences are the exact same as yours, there are no rigid rules for how to write a memoir.

A six-word memoir is also a great exercise if you're seeking inspiration on how to write book titles or exploring techniques on how to subtitle a book.

Try one (or a few) of these exercises to get the creative juices flowing: 

A memoir for each chapter of your life

We all have different seasons of our lives, so why not turn each into a mini-memoir? This can help you clarify what you’ve gotten out of each life phase, like your school years, your first job, a serious trial like an illness or the birth of your child. 

A memoir for each of your identities

To paraphrase Walt Whitman, you contain multitudes. You are not just a mom or just a sales representative. Your identity is tied to your culture, passions, relationships, and more. Write a Six-Word Memoir to express each facet of your identity. 

A memoir using metaphors 

Ah, the metaphor, one of the most beloved literary devices. If you’re up for a challenge, try writing your Six-Word Memoir using metaphors. Pick a theme, like nature, food, or sports, and see what you can convey. 

A memoir about change 

What if you reflect on the biggest periods of transformation in your life? Whether traveling the world, becoming a parent or taking on a big challenge, the events you’ve experienced changed you. Challenge yourself to write six words about that. 

Need more prompts to get your creativity flowing? We've curated a collection of 75 memoir writing prompts to help you craft your narrative.

What's your Six-Word Memoir?

If you intend to write your own memoir, crafting a six-word version (or a few) can be a beneficial and beloved part of your creative process. 

Of course, the process of expanding those six words into an entire book is significant. If you’re feeling intimidated by getting your life story onto the page (and getting it published), we’re here to help. 

At selfpublishing.com, we coach you with the strategies you need to get your book written and published, and we’re there to support you the entire way. Just schedule a book consultation to get started. 


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