Sierra Brown: Six words

By Sierra Brown, Columnist
Published October 29, 2014

What memory or event is worthy enough to stand as your memoir, to be the sole representation of who you are as a person?

Oct. 20 was the National Day on Writing. In celebration, Sweetland Writing Center hosted the “Iron Writing Challenge,” which consisted of four challenges. This social media-based challenge required students to respond to the challenge prompts via Sweetland’s Facebook page as a comment on the desired challenge, or tweet a response with the hashtag #SweetlandNDOW. The number of likes, favorites or retweets determined the winner of each challenge. When reading through the prompts I contemplated whether or not I wanted to complete all or just a few of the challenges.

Challenge one: “If I were to teach academic OR creative writing at U-M I would ____.” I didn’t know where to begin with this prompt and never had the desire to instruct a class, so I pushed this challenge to the side and considered the next one. “Write a limerick about writing.” My initial thought was this sounds fun, but the thought that followed was I hate writing poetry. Since limericks have a strict format — AABBA rhyme scheme — I decided to give my poetry writing a try. This task quickly lost its flare. Finding rhyming words was not as always as easy as it seemed, at least not for a poetry illiterate like myself. Since the limerick was becoming a pain in the neck, I crossed that challenge off of my to-do list.

Two down, two to go was my thought upon moving to the third challenge: “Reimagine the thesis for a paper you’re working on or have already written AS a haiku.” Great, more poetry. I wanted to throw in the towel on this challenge immediately, but convinced myself to give this poem a try though I foresaw an uphill battle. To be fair, I told myself, these are challenges, and what would a challenge be without a little struggle? Or a lot. Thinking, rather hoping, that I’d have better luck with haikus, another poem with a strict format — 17 syllables divided into lines of five, seven and five. I was able to spend more time on this poem, first deciding which class from which to borrow a thesis from. I settled on a Literature and Social Change English class. I’d recently had the thesis for my first paper approved by my professor. Selecting a thesis proved to be the easy part; condensing a five sentence thesis into a 17-syllable poem was much harder. After working on this for a while, I took a break and examined the last challenge option.

“Write your memoir in six words.” This prompt intrigued me and I initially wrote it off as a piece of cake. Six words was the shortest requirement for the challenges and it seemed like a no-brainer. However, once I began brainstorming, this prompt was by far the most challenging one. After spending more time than expected analyzing my possible responses, I decided to disregard the other prompts and focus solely on this one. Technically, completing these challenges was a competition, but I was not competing to win any prize. I wasn’t even competing to win, but I was dedicated to writing this memoir for two reasons. One, this prompt was the most intriguing, and two, this prompt was the most challenging. While I backed down from the other challenges, I forced myself to complete this one. After filling two pages of ideas for my memoir I took a hiatus from writing, and made a plan to write more the next day. The following day, when I found a bit of free time, I wrote more ideas. Nothing seemed to work for me. Each time I wrote something too long. After allowing myself to become frustrated, I stopped and actually thought about what a memoir was — a piece of writing that details memories of moments and events in the public and private life of the author. This definition in mind, I tried to write again. No words came to mind.

I couldn’t think of any events that occurred in my life worth discussing. I supposed I could talk about high school, or college, or maybe even my family. But what could I divulge to readers about myself? Brainstorming went from fun to challenging to ugh! Later in the day, I began asking friends to write their memoirs in six words. Few were able to, most were not. I had an extended conversation with my best friend and she began asking questions about how I define myself. As a student, daughter, sister and friend. How about that, she asks. I considered it, but something about those words was still unsatisfying. I felt like I wanted to actually discuss an event or moment that made me who I am today. My school, family and friends did play a role in that, but I had this urge to say more.

Oct. 20 came and I was still wrestling with ideas. I went to Sweetland’s Facebook page to view others’ responses. After logging in, I stopped myself. I didn’t want to get any ideas from others’ work. I sat in front of my computer, notebook in lap, and flipping through page after page, I circled a few of my favorite six-word sentences. After a game of eeny, meeny, miny, moe, I selected one and submitted it. I logged out of Facebook before I had time to reread my response and regret my decision.

Though the challenge gave me more trouble than expected, I still enjoyed trying to write something impressive. I never considered how hard it would be to discuss something about myself in six words. How many of us have considered the battle of writing about our lives, something that we should be experts on, when given a word constraint? What six words are worthy enough to make the cut for your memoir?

Sierra Brown can be reached at snbrown@umich.edu.