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A life story – in seven words

December 01, 2009

Can seven words a memoir make?

That was the challenge issued by the Department of English at ASU as part of a day-long celebration of the National Day on Writing last month.

The department hosted several events during the day, including an open house, a “Write-In” where people were invited to write their thoughts on writing, and the seven-word memoir challenge.

Memoir-writers could either send their seven words via e-mail, or stop by the English Education Program office to pen their contributions.

The idea of writing a very short story or memoir – usually six words – is a widely used exercise, both in writing classes and for fun, said Laura Turchi, a clinical professor in the English Department and coordinator of ASU’s National Day on Writing activities.

In a 2008 story about six-word memoirs, National Public Radio noted that, according to legend, novelist Ernest Hemingway was asked to write a full story in six words and he came up with this sentence: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn."

NPR also quotes some six-word memoirs collected by Smith, an online magazine. Writer Dave Eggers penned, “Fifteen years since last professional haircut,” while comedian Stephen Colbert wrote, “Well, I thought it was funny.”

“We stole the idea, but made it seven words,” Turchi said. “One of the words had to be Arizona.”

Nearly 50 people at ASU made the attempt to capture their lives in seven words, with many focusing on one of Arizona’s defining attributes: heat.

“Lots of the memoirs were on weather,” said Turchi.

“Arizona writers: hot stories and dry humor?” opined one memoirist. Another, taking some liberty with the word count, wrote, “Hot Arizona heated my hot passion, LOL.”

Several teachers of English as a Second Language sent their classes as a group for the experience, Turchi said.

“Since the students were sent to get credit, they were mostly focused on getting proof of their participation. But they were also intrigued by the assignment, I think – seven words seems so simple, but they understood quickly that to make it true, and make sense, was not so easy.”

The memoirs ran the gamut from factual to poetic:

“Arizona’s Joe says that I look illegal.”

“I love and hate weather in Arizona.”

“Lovin’ the Arizona fall, hatin’ the winter.”

“Burning bright azure light love this Arizona.”

“Arizona State University is the BEST ever!!”

What does one learn from going through the exercise of composing a seven-word memoir?

“I think there’s the puzzle-solving learning – can I choose seven words that make sense, given these formal constraints?" Turchi said. "I have a dear friend – the excellent poet Heather McHugh, who just won one of the MacArthur genius awards – and I consulted her about it. I was hoping she’d know some wonderful obscure poetic form, but we ended up talking about tiny poems that are a distillation of thought, that capture just a breath, or even the space between breaths.

“Which leads to the other kind of learning – you put in your words, then you step back and marvel at what you may have inadvertently revealed, even to yourself.”

The 2009 National Day on Writing was established bya U.S. Senate resolution at the request of the National Council of Teachers of English.

The NCTE Web site explains the rationale:

“Whether we call it texting, IMing, jotting a note, writing a letter, posting an e-mail, blogging, making a video, building an electronic presentation, composing a memo, keeping a diary, or just pulling together a report, Americans are writing like never before.

Recent research suggests that writing, in its many forms, has become a daily practice for millions of Americans. It may be the quintessential 21st century skill. By collecting a cross-section of everyday writing through a National Gallery of Writing, we will better understand what matters to writers today – and when writing really counts.

Understanding who writes, when, how, to whom, and for what purposes will lead to production of improved resources for writers, better strategies to nurture and celebrate writers, and improved policy to support writing.”

All of the ASU memoirs are now posted on the National Council of Teachers of English Web site,