How to write a six-word memoir that’s worth a thousand words
Somewhere between waking up at 3 a.m. on a Monday with keyboard marks on my face and getting a C on my latest calculus exam, I’ve learned that I miiight have an issue with time management. Maybe I should cut down on the comedy, I thought to myself.
Haha. Just kidding! I just switched to quicker comedy. And you can, too! All you need is six words and a pen.
What am I referring to? Well, there’s a little (and I really do mean little) writing challenge called the six-word memoir, and the goal of it is to summarize who you are in just six words. Filmmaker Nora Ephron, for example, wrote: “Secret to life: Marry an Italian.”
But Nora Ephron makes clever look so easy. For most of us, putting pen to paper and coming up with this kind of alchemy is … difficult, challenging, frustrating, rage-inducing, and two other adjectives.
To help get that ball point pen a-rollin’, here is a handy step-by-step guide to finding your funny in just six short words, with a little help from some women you know and love.
Think about who you are as a person.
Just take this first step as just an opportunity to get to know yourself a little better and write down who you are. You basically want to barf out everything you think about yourself, and sort it out later. The GOLD goddesses have curated a great list of questions in GOLD’s new online comedy course, which includes helpful prompts like these:
- What makes me interesting is…
- I am/was proud of myself when….
- If I could change one thing about myself…
- I would be so happy if…
- I would just like to thank…
You can also try finding ideas by taking these prompts and writing about them, stream-of-consciousness style, for one minute (timed!).
- Write a rough timeline of your life.
- Describe what you look like and what stands out in your appearance. How has your look changed over time?
- Describe your family or your friends.
- Describe your childhood.
- What is your typical day like?
The point is to expand how you think about yourself — to fill your mental palette with all the colors you can find inside yourself. You’ll only use six, but you want every option possible.
Find common threads and representative anecdotes.
Look over your brainstorming. Does anything jump out at you? What elements of what you’ve written really represent who you are? Are there any themes that get repeated throughout, or any moments that really encapsulate your persona? Where can you find pieces of who you are that make you laugh? Mark these, and think back to them as you start to draft your memoir. This will help you get your introspective juices flowing so that your personality is really at the heart of what you have to say.
Write, write, write!
Now, set a timer for 10 minutes and write as many six-word memoirs as you can, using the elements of who you are identified in the steps above. Don’t think too hard. Just do a ton of them. When you think you’ve exhausted yourself, do three more. And then one more.
Once you’ve spit out a few, think about structure. Many six-word memoirs read like awkward haikus, with missing words sort of glaring out at you between the lines. Some are just a list of connected words. That can be good, it can even be powerful. But as you get used to packing all this feeling into a tiny container, you can expand your horizons and try applying joke structure.
I know, I know. Six words! But stay with me. Even in this abbreviated format, you can use “setup … punch!,” the queen of all joke structures, in which you set people up to expect one thing and turn in a completely different direction. Author Amy Sohn does this perfectly in her six-word memoir: “Gave commencement address, became sex columnist.” By initially defining herself through the life event of addressing her own graduation, Sohn leads readers to believe that she’ll go on to a highbrow, cerebral career, which is why her ending about choosing to make a living writing about sex is such an unexpected twist.
Triples can also be easily incorporated into six word memoirs. If the “setup … punch!” is the most basic joke structure, a triple is a “setup, setup … punch!” with the last item a bit of a surprise. Journalist Katie Couric uses a triple in explaining her life story: “Secret of life: Family, friends, bacon.” The last word of the three definitely takes the bacon for its originality and humor in comparison to the two preceding words. If you want even more structure ideas, GOLD founder Lynn Harris has got you covered. You can apply any of these to the six-word form.
Keep these ideas in mind, but also let yourself see what comes out naturally. Some six-word gems don’t follow any structure at all. Like this, from Joan Rivers: “Liars, hysterectomy didn’t improve sex life!” Or see how Amy Schumer handled it: “At least you know he’s circumcised.” When it comes right down to it, the best six-word memoirs come from the heart.
Now that you’re equipped with a boatload of six-word memoirs, go forth and release them into the wild!
Don’t forget to send your genius our way at @GOLDcmdy on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and to tag @six.word.memoirs so that your work can really get noticed.
And if you’re really excited to impress everyone with your six words and more, check out the full GOLD Comedy online class to learn how to find your funny and deliver it to the stage!
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KAITLIN GOLDIN is a student, writer, actress, and devout McJew based in the Bay Area.