Brain Pickings

Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students from Grade School to Grad School

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“The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.”

In 2006, Larry Smith presented a challenge to his community at SMITH Magazine: How would you tell your life’s story if you could only use six words? The question, inspired by the legend that Hemingway was once challenged to write an entire novel in just six words, spurred a flurry of responses — funny, heartbreaking, moving, somewhere between PostSecret and Félix Fénéon’s three-word reports. The small experiment soon became a global phenomenon, producing a series of books and inspiring millions of people to contemplate the deepest complexities of existence through the simplicity of short-form minimalism. The latest addition to the series, Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated: Illustrated Six-Word Memoirs by Students Making Sense of the World, comes from TEDBooks and collects dozens of visual six-word autobiographies from students between the ages of 8 and 35.

In the introduction, Smith speaks to the liberating quality of constraints:

As an autobiographical challenge, the six-word limitation forces us to pinpoint who we are and what matters most — at least in the moment. The constraint fuels rather than limits our creativity.

The micro-memoirs are divided into four sections — grade school, high school, college, and graduate school — and touch, with equal parts wit and disarming candor, on everything from teenagers’ internal clocks to the escapism of Alice in Wonderland.

Charlotte 'Charley' Berkenbile, 8, is in third grade at Florence Elementary School in Keller, Texas.

Sonia Rose Menken, 10, attends Charles H. Bullock School in Montclair, N.J., where she is in fifth grade.

Kenn Doan, 12, is in sixth grade at West Stanly Middle School in Locust, N.C.

Shawn Budlong, 13, is in seventh grade at the Thurgood Marshall School in Rockford, Ill.

Rehana Ottalah, 13, is in eighth grade at J.D. Meisler Middle School in Metairie, La.

Courtney Drude, 16, attends Marriotts Ridge High School in Ellicott City, Md., where she is a junior.

Yoona Chun, 17, is a senior at Townsend Harris High School in Queens, N.Y.

Liz Pendragon, 17, attends Union High School in Union, Mo., where she is a senior.

Devin White, 19, attends Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., where he is a freshman.

Georgia Chouteau, 19, is a sophomore at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

Melanie Jeanne Plank, 21, is a senior at the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago, Ill.

Minhee Bae, 21, is a senior at the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario.

Elizabeth Kay Oh, 23, recently completed her bachelor’s at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City.

Things Don’t Have To Be Complicated comes on the heels of TED’s The Science of Optimism: Why We’re Hard-Wired for Hope and offers an inadvertent yin to its yang.

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