Arts & Culture

The Big Jewcy: Larry Smith, SMITH Mag

In an age of information influx, we seem drawn to the places online where the Internet simplifies, streamlines, and presents small wonder in bite-size portions.  And yes, I did consider using "byte-size portions" before thinking better of it.  Just as … Read More

By / June 17, 2010

In an age of information influx, we seem drawn to the places online where the Internet simplifies, streamlines, and presents small wonder in bite-size portions.  And yes, I did consider using "byte-size portions" before thinking better of it.  Just as the haiku emerged from the need to reflect upon the changing seasons and man’s relation with nature in premodern Japan, we too seek little profundities that might sum up our era, and our engagement with a rapidly developing world. 

Enter "Six-Word Memoirs", a succinct sensation created by SMITH Magazine.  Founder and Editor-in-Chief Larry Smith credits the idea to a conversation he had in 2006 with Senior Editor Rachel Fershleiser about Ernest Hemingway.  Hemingway was once challenged to write a six-word novel.  Smith says he and Fershleiser were bouncing around the Hemingway legend when Fershleiser googled the phrase "Six-Word Memoir" and found nothing. The next day, Smith added the Six-Word Memoir project to the site’s story project roster, asked a few famous writers to contribute to get things rolling (from a plane in Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert offered: "Me see world, me write stories"), started hyping the notion on this new thing called Twitter—and thousands and thousands of short, short life stories began to pour in to SMITHmag.net. As blogging was becoming a cottage industry, Smith began to think about longtime inspirations like Studs Terkel and This American Life in a new light.  "All my life, the stories I wrote that people reacted to were personal narratives," says Smith.  "Now everyone wants to make their own media."  Smith also recalls the resonance of the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" series in the wake of 9/11: "This is the biggest story of our time, and you would see people reading these personal stories, memoirs really, and everyone on the subway is sobbing.  It made you feel like everyone’s story is worthy."   

Such was our climate earlier this century: as my friends and I fell under the Internet’s spell of downloadable Jawbreaker records and flirtatious instant messaging, Larry Smith was waiting for the rest of us to catch up.  "I was working at Yahoo! Internet Life, which was like the people’s Wired," says Smith. "And I love Wired.  And you know, I have good instincts.  I listen and watch people."  Larry’s early collaborations with Twitter from its inception is but one example of his knack for his ground-floor vouching: Six-Word Memoirs were one of the first big hits on what Smith remembers as "this thing that everyone thought was crazy where you’d type a hundred and forty characters into your cell phone."  Even in his pre-SMITH Mag salad days, Larry sensed a tide turning: "Back then I remember, my designer for some reason thought that the word "blog" came from "log", as in a wood log.  But if you were there at Yahoo! back then, you could not miss that it was coming.  People have always wanted to fly.  Then came the airplane and suddenly they could.  We’ve always wanted to communicate this way, now we have the tools.  So the Internet is this great equalizer."

"Wired" would be a fine word to describe Larry’s demeanor: from the outset he is a welcoming, enthusiastic host who bounces in his chair and taps his fingers while talking.  Like a kid bringing garter snakes to Kindergarten, he is eager to show and tell.  In particular he is today psyched about a demolition derby he’s just covered in Odgen, Utah for ESPN Magazine, and another one coming up in Washington that he’ll actually be taking part in.  "I’m not telling my Jewish mother about it until it’s over!" says Smith.  His desk is either a sandbox or a Zen garden: a wide open glassland of crisp white pages interspersed with family photos, an equal mix of sports and computer magazines, comic books, a marked up copy of Bit Literacy by Marc Hurst, and a whirlwind of bottles left behind by a wine critic with whom Smith has recently been sharing his Chelsea office space.  With Larry clicking away rapidly at his desk between bites of lunch, the result looks like a lo-fi remake of Minority Report with a Michael J. Fox lookalike cast in Tom Cruise’s role. 

When he speaks, Smith illustrates his points by pulling up his favorite contributions by SMITH Mag users, and articles like his colleague Heidi Pollock’s 2001 pieces about blogging and its potential to revolutionize journalism.  In pursuit of the morsels for which he’s clicking around on his Macbook, he spouts off exclamations of "Where’d she go?" and "Ah ha!"  He touts the work of writers and projects he admires and shares a kinship with, like PostSecret and Found, Stephen Elliott of The Rumpus, and Dave Eggers, with whom he worked on the now famous/infamous Might magazine of San Francisco.  "What I admire about Eggers is that he’s constantly reinventing.  He chooses not to take the easy road, always giving back, and does great work with young people." 

Without warning, Larry leaps from his desk to show off his wife Piper Kerman’s much buzzed-about prison memoir Orange is the New Black.  He pauses to recommend the Middle Eastern food cart parked below his office.  Then he’s up again, proudly busting out a laminated grade school folder: "My nephew’s classroom sent me this book," he says.  He opens to the first page and points to his nephew Noah Michaud’s contribution to the class’ half-pint medley of Six-Word Memoirs.  It reads: "Eight years old: combed hair twice."  Not long after, Smith digs into a cabinet for some bookmarks made by Beth Carter in promotion of a reading she did at a bookstore in her native Missouri hyping her contribution to SMITH Mag‘s latest tome, released this January entitled It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.  "[Blogging] has gotten both more and less professionalized," says Smith.  "Some people start and blow it off, but many are approaching magazine journalism, people like Seth Godin.  Is journalism just Men’s Health, or is it also Timothy Ferris doing experiments on himself and collecting his own data?"  The idea that we’re not only choosing our words thoughtfully when expounding personal narratives, but also exchanging information in this way further thrills Larry.  "If something’s happened with a plane on the Hudson, or Obama wins the Nobel Prize, I will probably know very quickly by going onto Six-Word Memoirs." 

Uniting all of these joygasms is the sense that Larry wants to celebrate the work of others, credit them for jobs well done, and offer a forum and due diligence to new writers sporting unconventional wisdom.  "Making a mess can be interesting," says Smith.  "This is a wildly new time: exciting and also messy."  For an editor whose magazine shares his name, Larry is notably selfless in his ambitions for the site.  He explained to Gothamist in 2007 that calling it Smith was suggested by a friend largely in reference to "smiths", as in those who craft something. "I’m more of a community builder than a journalist," says Larry.  "What we’ve created is a community."  Through Harper Books, SMITH Mag has published four volumes of Six-Word Memoirs in the last twenty months, with more forthcoming.  Each compiles primarily site-user contributions with a dash of famous folks here and there.  "You would think people would hold back," Smith notes.  "But then we get memoirs in like, ‘After Harvard, had baby with crackhead."  Notable among the Six-Word Memoir titles on the docket is Six Words on the Jewish Life, which Larry dubs "316 amazing six-word stories on the amazing, inspiring, and perplexing life of Jews." 

Despite being an apparent optimist, Smith is candid about the hardship realities of a publishing industry enduring growing pains in a new medium: "When you take passion over money, I think you come out ahead.  When I was younger, I used to say that, but now I think I can really believe it.  We have a populist vibe, or perhaps democratic is the better word.  I’m the kind of guy who has more fun at a good barbeque than a cocktail party.  I didn’t get into this to go to downtown parties I don’t really want to be at to begin with."  Implicit in such talk is the candor of someone seemingly removed from cynicism, unafraid of the cornball within.  If Smith is not the kind of savvy smiler who both rode the tech bubble’s cresting wave and stayed afloat in the wake of its post-Startup blues, then he’s certainly doing a marvelous impression of one.  "It’s not easy to be a Jewcy or a SMITH," says Larry, "but passion is contagious."  Even established curmudgeon technophobes like American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar are susceptible to Larry’s contagion charm: "We got Pekar to tweet, which the media loved.  It’s great: Pekar calls, mumbles something into the phone, and then Jeff [Newelt, SMITH Mag Comics Editor, and fellow Big Jewcy] posts it." 

Much of Smith’s hopefulness stems from a youthful audience: teenagers are among the most active and prolific writers of Six-Word Memoirs: many were collected in a 2009 collection entitled I Can’t Keep My Own Secrets.  The teachers of these upstarts aren’t far behind them in content output.  "We’re reaching schools in ways I hadn’t expected.  I think like 25% of our readers are teachers or librarians.  You’re a forty-four year old librarian or insurance person.  You can go to SMITH, and write, and it may not be amazing, but it’s published.  We curate the community by encouraging community."  Moreover, it’s a community soon to cross borders, as new translations of Six-Word Memoirs’ books are soon to be published in Japanese and Spanish. 

Years ago Smith once wrote a six-word memoir of his own for a bio on SMITH Mag.  It read: "Big hair, big heart, big hurry."  When asked if he felt that memoir still applied, he nods with gusto.  "That one was from 2007, and I’m in more of a hurry than ever.  But now I also like, ‘Threw spaghetti at wall: some stuck.’  The temptation to conclude a feature about Smith with a six-word memoir of the experience is irresistible.  Yet profound brevity, as Larry and his seventeenth century Japanese counterpart Basho would tell us, is not as easy as it looks.  The perfect Tweet or schoolyard zinger read like quantum mechanics: the smallest cog setting off a chain reaction towards infinity.  So then: "All’s well that ends well?"  "The best is yet to come?"  "Fake it ‘til you make it?" I shake my head and prod away at the Backspace key.  Then, like a hammer smacking an anvil, an apropos tribute to a world-class appreciator like Larry strikes:

"Thanks for the Halal cart tipoff."