06 June 2011


Reading Diary: I Can't Keep My Own Secrets: Six-word Memoirs by Teens Famous + Obscure

This is the story of six . . .

Most memoirs are books written by one person and are meant to be read from start to finish. There's one overall story with a beginning, middle, and end, plus some characters you get to know pretty well.

This is not one of those books.

This is a book with over 600 authors (all aged thirteen to nineteen) and 600 characters (all real, as far as we know) and 600 stories (which can be read in any order). What every story has in common is that each was written about the author's own life, and that each is the exact same length: six words.

The introduction includes that legend about Ernest Hemingway I've always loved: the one in which he was challenged to write a short story in ten words and came back with six:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

There is a whole novel in those six words, for those who know how to read them.

Romance author Mary Jo Putney once said of Hemingway's style that it is "as devoid of emotion as it is of adjectives." While I generally agree with her critique, I wonder if a six-word Putney Romance novel would be any match for our six-word Hemingway classic.

But novels are hard--and as I glance around my glass house, I realise I have no business throwing down gauntlets. Let's stick with the memoirs.

Have permit. Still can't drive away. (Maryssa B.)

Family night is secretly my favourite. (Lindsey D.)

Summer camp: alone, with Sedaris anecdotes. (Pearl M.)

History. Math. Study Hall. Birthing Coach. (Laura D.)

Prefer Indiana Jones to Mr. Darcy. (Laura H.)

Overachieved. Love high school. Now what? (Meghan M.)

I started reading this book because of the cleverness of the idea--for the fun of trying to decode each memoir and see the person behind it. After a few pages, I was crying and couldn't explain why.


There are some famous six-word write ups we love because we know the whole story behind them . . .

Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances.

^^^So read the report after Fred Astaire's first screen test. One argument for why you should never let anyone else write the story of your life for you! =P

But the six-word memoirs in this book don't tell the whole story. They're like strangers you meet one summer and then never see again: you might have promised to write, but you knew you never would. So now you spend the rest of your life wondering about them. And there is nothing lonelier than wondering about people who've touched our lives.


The last time I was at Star Shaker and Skid Breaker's apartment, I made them answer a "How well do you know your best friend?" questionnaire that had been adapted for their sibling status. Older sister Star Shaker got a near perfect score. Skid Breaker bombed terribly, but with laughter. He does know his sister well, just not the answers to those specific questions. I laughed along with them until it hit me that I don't know how well my own brothers and I would do if we had to answer the same questions about each other. I'm fairly sure we won't bomb . . .

. . . and those had better not be six "famous last words"! =P

My point is just that when we're really close to people, we're also open books to them. Exchange is not limited to six words, however evocative; and understanding, however imperfect, is not shrouded in such mystery. I Can't Keep My Own Secrets has the power to move readers because it reminds us that there are still some things we have trouble saying to everyone other than near strangers.

Anyway, here is my own six-word memoir:

I can always disappoint my grandfather.

Feel free to add your own in the combox.

Image Source: I Can't Keep My Own Secrets: Six-word Memoirs by Teens Famous + Obscure


Darwin said...

Love, love your six-word memoir.

Haven't come up with my own, yet.

Darwin said...

And that's me, MrsDarwin, above.

Shaz said...

Sometimes I cry without knowing why.

Enbrethiliel said...


Mrs. Darwin -- Thank you. =)

Shaz -- That's haunting!

Risa said...

Bound yet unbound. Freedom is home.

Risa said...

Those six words by Hemingway - the first time I read them, I felt my heart clench. But then I realised it could be interpreted differently - and that was ordinary and mundane. :)

Jillian said...

Ugh that six-word memoir by Hemingway.. makes me sad for some reason. I am going to try to be optimistic that the reason why the shoes were never worn was because the baby grew up too fast and couldn't fit in the shoe anymore!

For mine.. hmm.

Life eats me. I bite back.

That doesn't really make sense. Haha.

Enbrethiliel said...


Risa -- That's empowering!

Yes, there is a mundane explanation to the Hemingway story. =) But of course the line gets its power from the heartrending conclusion we all automatically jump to!

Jillian -- Yours put a smile on my face! =) Not all six-word memoirs have to be sad. This one is profound in its own way. And of course it makes sense!

CHE said...

have you seen this http://www.smithmag.net/sixwords/
I wonder which came first, the book or the site?
I love your memoir BTW. The Hemingway story always gives me a sense of loss.

Enbrethiliel said...


I've visited once or twice, but I get my six-word memoir fix from @Smithmag on Twitter! ;-)

Good question about which came first. I'd say the book, but since Smith seems to be entirely Web based (as far as I can tell!), it seems that the site preceded it after all!

That Hemingway story may prove to have touched more readers than what he actually won the Nobel Prize for. (Hmmmm. The Old Man and the Sea is a six-word memoir in its own right. LOL!) I always associate his six-word story with Hills Like White Elephants, which is as sad as any story "devoid of emotion" can be.

Sheila said...

Never knew myself until my son.

Enbrethiliel said...


Oh, wow. That packs a quick but powerful punch--especially to someone who reads your blog! =)

KJ Kron said...

Will my book sell one copy?

KJ Kron said...

OK, I had one previously, but I like this one more:

My mom won't read my book.

Enbrethiliel said...


KJ, they're both great! But you're right that the second one packs a heartier punch. It has more history and more interpersonal conflict. =)

Good luck with your book!