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The Interview: Larry Smith

Sharing stories around a campfire is among our most enduring traditions. From the primitive survival tips of our earliest ancestors to complex cautionary tales of love and loss, language remains the common currency of the human experience. But now we have a bigger campfire, spreading light and heat to everyone within reach of a keyboard [...]
J.R. McMillan

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Sharing stories around a campfire is among our most enduring traditions. From the primitive survival tips of our earliest ancestors to complex cautionary tales of love and loss, language remains the common currency of the human experience. But now we have a bigger campfire, spreading light and heat to everyone within reach of a keyboard or constantly connected device we carry in our pockets. That’s where Larry Smith is in his element, helping strangers rediscover the ancient art of storytelling by distilling it down to six simple words.

The Six-Word Memoir project started as a stopgap solution for SMITH Magazine, an online rendezvous for writers that launched just as social media was redefining the rules for every internet interaction. Of course, it’s hard to foresee the future from ground level. But Smith somehow did, even as corporations and his contemporaries in what we call “old media” struggled to see over the obvious horizon. Never minding the naysayers, Six-Word Memoirs tapped into something deft, yet diminutive. From boardrooms to classrooms, suicide prevention to speed dating, the platform defied critics by effectively elevating kitsch to cause almost overnight.

After a decade of didactic self-disclosure, it would be easy to descend into diatribes about Marshall McLuhan, the medium is the message, and other pointy-headed punditry. Though there is merit in analyzing the mental mechanisms behind the movement, it was never intended as an indulgent, academic exercise. Nor are there the fading flames or faint flickers of a dying fire. The effort keeps evolving to reach unlikely audiences and amateur auteurs whose unspoken autobiographies offer an intimate perspective that pierces the darkness with a few soulful syllables.

Having settled in Columbus after several stints in hipper haunts, Larry Smith kicked back for coffee to reflect on ten years of Six Words—an idea that keeps reinventing itself.

“I’m sure you’ve answered this before.”

You’re essentially a superhero of short-form storytelling. Yet some are still unfamiliar with the six-word concept. What was the inspiration? Tell me your origin story?

I love origin stories. When I’m introduced, it’s often just ‘This is Larry Smith of Six-Word Memoirs” and someone might say, “Oh, you’re that six-word guy?” I like superhero better. The origin story is a literary legend, which some of your readers may know. Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write a six-word novel in a bar bet, where many literary legends begin. As the story goes, Hemingway wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

In January of 2006, I left a traditional journalism career working mostly in print magazines, but some web—Men’s Journal, ESPN Magazine, Dave Eggar’s Might, POV, Yahoo! Internet Life, which was like the people’s WIRED. I saw the user-generated content explosion coming as kind of the tech culture guy at all of these magazines.

Telling stories is hot, in almost an amusing way. It’s always been hot in film and television. But it’s hot in advertising now, because technology finally caught up with what we’ve always wanted to do. Telling stories, recording music, creating art—our ability to share these stories through Facebook, Twitter, and Six-Word Memoirs has become more easy, and addictive.

So I did something crazy and left a career I really enjoyed and I started smithmag.net on January 6, 2006 on National Smith Day, which is one of those days you get if enough people sign a petition. But it was a good media hook. I launched a user-generated content magazine where anyone could tell a story. But Six-Word Memoirs wasn’t part of it.

“You’ve got to be kidding us?”

Online magazines were a tough sell back then, especially without some sort of parallel print product. How did your early partnership with Twitter propel Six-Word Memoirs into the popular culture?

Toward the end of the first year, people loved it— but it wasn’t a business. It wasn’t generating enough traffic. “Threw spaghetti at wall. Some stuck.” is one of my favorite six-word memoirs, and that’s what I did. I remembered the Hemingway legend and thought, “What if we gave it a personal twist?”

So we Googled “six-word memoir” and nothing came up.

That was it— we called it “Six-Word Memoirs”. It was going to be a month-long contest and the best six-word story would win an iPod, which was a good prize back in 2006.  Right before we launched, I called up these guys I’d met at a tech conference with a side project called Twitter. This was when you could call Twitter and Jack Dorsey would answer the phone. We’d talked about doing a project with SMITH Mag and they thought it was great. So anyone could enter a story about any part of their lives, their whole life, an epitaph, how you’re feeling today, whatever. But if you wanted to win the iPod, you had to sign up for this funny little thing called Twitter. We crowd-sourced the decision to some interns and friends and the winner was, “Barrister, barista— what’s the diff, Mom?” from a Silicon Valley engineer named Abigail Moorhouse. The response was overwhelming. We were receiving tens of thousands of six-word memoirs— which at the time all came to my email box. Obviously now we curate it and built the site around it.

“Six words aren’t really so simple.”

Between the ease of the app and the confines of the format, there’s a surprising amount of intimacy on the site, the kind that maybe gets lost or overlooked in social media platforms without that six-word limit. How is this a fundamentally different experience?

wIt can get very deep, even though it’s short. I call it ADDeep.

We have power users on the site who have posted ten even twenty thousand six-word memoirs. They post eight to ten times a day almost like a Facebook status. Some are silly, but some are profound.

We have lots of six-word memoirs about the most emotional times in people’s lives— the birth of a child or a battle with cancer. If you go to the site as a major event is unfolding— like a mass shooting, a plane lands on the Hudson, or the death of someone like John Glenn—people share their thoughts and reflections. And because we aren’t as big as a Twitter or Facebook, people really have to sense that in our smaller community they are being heard.

When Bowie died? Whoa. Our users were able to become part of that narrative. The constraint fuels creativity.

“Some couples share everything. Some don’t.”

My wife and I met in journalism school, which means she’s either the first person to read something I’m writing—or the last. What’s it like having two writers under the same roof? How did your Six-Word experience influence your wife’s memoir?

My wife, Piper Kerman, wrote the memoir Orange is the New Black based on her own experience serving 13 months in federal prison for a crime she committed a long time ago. So, we’re both in the storytelling business. She teaches writing in two state prisons outside of Columbus, Marion and Marysville.

She is a reluctant memoirist, and a more quiet and introverted person than I am. I’m much more unfiltered than she is, which isn’t a criticism. It’s just a style and approach. Many people have a memoir inside them, but she was never like, “I want to write a book about my life.”

Everyone has an interesting story if you poke around, but when she got out of prison, people were curious. And when she went into prison, there were really no books for women. They were all about the experiences of men. People were hungry to hear about it and she felt a deep obligation to tell not just her story, but the stories of the other women as well—who they are, where they came from, and what happens to them when they get out.

I encouraged her to write it, and knew she was a great writer from living with her all those years. We have a friend who used to joke long before Piper went to prison and wrote the book that she was the better writer in the house because she would edit things I wrote and she was so good. But after getting her letters while she was in prison, it was undeniable. She’s absolutely the better writer.

“Is storytelling a calling, or curse?”

Columbus is known a test market for all sorts of products, and we’re proud of it. How did Columbus come to be the Six in the City prototype— a city of storytellers?

What I learned from Six-Word Memoirs is that I went from journalist, which I liked a lot, to someone who builds community through storytelling, which I love.

People sometimes ask if I ever get bored with Six Words. But it’s really just a tool to get people to open up about themselves, and that’s never boring. If I’m working with a Mosaic class, or Columbus School for Girls, or Independents’ Day with pieces of paper and a clothesline barking for Sixes.

Giving people agency over their lives, to be the protagonist in their own stories is empowering. I once had a teenage girl get up on stage at the Harmony Project and say, “Yes, I’m pregnant, but I’m graduating.” And they clapped. She was owning her story.

Six in the City tells the story of an entire community. I had initial meetings in New York, talked to folks with the city, and I’d get a call back three months later.

I didn’t intend to launch Six in the City in Columbus. But when I got here and looked around, and started to understand the community vibe, everyone I talked to in Columbus said yes.

Do you want to have a meeting? “Yes.” Do you want to move forward? “Yes.” Columbus is a “Yes” city. If you have an idea, and you’re willing to work hard, Columbus will help you make it happen— the city, the people, the community, everyone.

We came here two times before we decided to move here. There was an event at the Jewish Community Center, and we went out to dinner afterwards. We didn’t have any family ties or friends here. We came back one more time and my wife and I decided right then, “Let’s do this. Let’s get a house”. I was tired of that Brooklyn apartment anyway. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Now, I’m an ambassador for Columbus.

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Former OSU player starts career as Columbus Firefighter

614now Staff

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Former Buckeye and New Orleans Saints running back running back Antonio Pittman is trading the pads and helmet of the gridiron for a fire hose and a...different helmet in his new career, according to ABC6.

https://twitter.com/mariawsyx6/status/1228415062051819520?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fabc6onyourside.com%2Fnews%2Flocal%2Fformer-ohio-state-nfl-running-back-opens-new-chapter-as-a-columbus-firefighter

Having recently graduated from the Columbus Fire Academy, Pittman is now on his first week on the job at fire station 12 on the city's west side.

A native of Akron, Pittman played for Ohio State from 2004 to 2006, and was part of the number 1 ranked team that defeated number 2 Michigan 42-39 in the "Game of the Century."

Pittman was then drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but was forced to retire from the NFL following a persistent knee injury.

"My goal was just to play football and honestly, I did that. And the dream was to have a ten-year career and to retire at 32 years old and be off in the sunset and just living comfortably. But you know, plans change and in life, you have to adapt to the change," Pittman told ABC6.

"My goal was to one day give back to a community, a city that's given me so much. A city that changed my whole outlook on life as a kid growing up in Akron."

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The Rest Is History: Couples in Columbus share their stories of falling in love

Mitch Hooper

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Illustration by Sarah Moore

If Hollywood would ever pick up a romantic comedy about a couple falling in love in Columbus, how would it look? Would it be an epic story ending in an intimate proposal on the Scioto Mile, or two strangers bumping into each other at the Varsity Club on game day?

Funny enough, both are very plausible.

This month, we wanted to answer the question: what do love stories in Columbus look like? And what we found is sometimes love stories don’t happen in Columbus; instead they happen because of Columbus. While some folks were high school sweethearts who rekindled the flame, others struck up conversation in countries far away just because they shared the same ZIP code. In part, where you’re from shapes who you are, and for these couples, the capital city holds a special spot in their hearts. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Rachel Grauer and Aaron Guilkey

Aaron and I first met in the early 2000s at Eli Pinney Elementary in Dublin. He was my first boyfriend in fourth grade and broke my heart on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for the young folk). We didn’t speak a word to each other all of high school, thank you high school social hierarchy. I went on to OU and he to OSU. We reconnected after college while on a bar crawl in the Short North and the rest is history. We are getting married September 2020!

Lauren Sheridan and David Tripp

All of this is true: We met at a Clippers baseball game. It was a team outing for work. I worked with his mom and she was setting us up. This story is meant to be a complete disaster. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Our first o cial date was at 16-Bit, where we would take our engagement pictures over two years later. He lived in Arizona for 10 years before moving back to Columbus in 2016. It’s been fun reintroducing him to the city, especially our food and beer scene. I can’t imagine having these adventures with anyone else.

Misty and Erin Dickinson

We met at Rendezvous Hair Salon, where she is a hairstylist. Then we spent time together at Drauma at the Bluestone, followed by a night out for a Nina West show at Axis complete with dinner at Union and after party drinks at Macs. We were with my friends and I o ered to walk her to her car which had been towed because, well, Columbus. I stayed with her until we finally found her car at 3 a.m. We started hanging out a lot after that while we both swore we were “just friends”! Almost five years later and we are back in Columbus after a two year move to Tampa. We married (twice, but the story will be way over 100 words! Second time at LaNavona), and have a thousand Columbus stories. Columbus is our home. The place we love and always come back to. There is no place like it.

Kellie Anne and Carl Rainey

I moved to Columbus from LA in 2014 and met my now-husband a month after the move. We found out quickly that we were both California sports fans and went on our first date on Halloween. Lakers vs. Clippers was on the TV at the bar, so we made a bet and the loser had to pick up the tab. My Clippers beat his Lakers, so he had to pay up. We’ve been inseparable ever since. We got married March 23, 2019, and I’m so happy to call Columbus my forever home now!

Daniel Custer and Jenny Harris

I met Jenny on a wine cruise in Santorini, Greece. I saw her from across the pier before we boarded and knew I wanted to chat her up—she was gorgeous. She and her friends sat by me on the catamaran and we began telling one another where we were from. When it got to Jenny, she said she was from Columbus. I said, “Where?!” and she said “Grandview!” We spent the rest of the weekend together, along with the past three years.

Brittany and Ethan Monk

We met as employees at Scioto Country Club in UA. He was a broke server and I was a broke student working as a hostess. We spent many holidays away from family but with each other. We are complete opposites that were impossibly attracted to one another. We married and have 2 children. Still opposites—I work in clinical research and he is a musician and stay-at-home dad. We both have made Columbus our home!

Nicole Erdeljac and Andrew Crowell

We spent the day (separately) at the 2019 Memorial Tournament and were hanging out at the Bogey Inn afterwards. He was standing at the bar and I was behind him, waiting to be served. His friend kept accidentally hitting my shoulder while trying to reach over me to get his attention. I was visibly annoyed when he asked me to tap him. But, I did. We spent the rest of the night dancing to the live band and had our first date a week later at the Columbus Arts Fest, once again, dancing to the live sounds of Anderson East. The rest is history!

Tracie Lynn and Adam Douglas Keller

It was one month to the day after my mother had lost her battle to cancer in 2007. It was one of my favorite nights for being out in Columbus—Red, White, and Boom. After my sister’s and my friend’s group persistently encouraged us to go out for fireworks and time with friends, we agreed. We needed something light and fun. What could possibly come of that?

I’ll never forget the moment that I made eye contact with this handsome, tall and smiling man. He had happened to be out with a mutual friend of our group. We made small talk, listened to live bands, and, well—the rest is history. Nearly 13 years later, we now have two great kids, two dogs, and a rich, full life in Columbus. This is the city we met in, and the one we made a life in. I couldn’t ask for a better love story.

Rebecca Scha er and Peter Yeager

We met at Ledo’s, the first bar on our OSU senior bar crawl list. Flash forward 12 hours later at World of Beer, we bumped into each other again and he handed me a raw russet potato with his name and number written on it in Sharpie. Super weird and random but it did the trick. I called him my soul mate to his face that night. Last winter he took me around town. We stopped at both those bars, reminiscing about our time together. He asked me to be his wife in the middle of the same World of Beer where he gave me that first potato, hiding the ring in a large toy Mrs. Potato head. There’s no other way I would have liked the beginning of our story to go.

Victoria and Ryan Metzinger

I met my amazing husband in Columbus on a blind date set up by mutual friends (sounds very 1995, but it was actually 2011). He suggested a casual drink at Grandview Cafe and I upped the ante for dinner at Third & Hollywood. We continued to Spagio and ended at Grandview Cafe and the rest is history! Now, with two beautiful boys, our WiFi network will always be labeled “Third and Hollywood” as an ode to the perfect setting for a first date. We also visit the restaurant every year on our anniversary and it will never lose its luster.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Author Saeed Jones

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Saeed Jones has traveled across the country promoting his new memoir and chosen Columbus for his own next chapter.

Author and new Columbus transplant Saeed Jones finally has a break after wrapping up his 16-city tour to promote his new memoir How We Fight for Our Lives. It’s a book that isn’t solely about his past, but is designed as an earnest conversation with readers. The book succeeds Jones’ previous poetry collections and a stint as Executive Editor of Culture at BuzzFeed, and is already receiving numerous honors and highly- publicized acclaim.

“It took a long time to write the book, almost a decade. So, I had a lot of time to think about writing it [being] one thing, but when you publish it, it becomes something different. I tried not to think so much about other people and the audience, but I think I trusted that if I could write to myself sincerely [and] candidly, that would be a bridge for other people,” he said. “It’s like you’re encountering someone when they just had a transformative experience. Something that’s really important for me in my writing is the cost of silence and the ways we silence ourselves. I think it’s powerful—as a writer, with the fortune I’ve had in my career—for people to be like, ‘I’m going through it’, and for me to be one more person who goes, ‘Me too.’”

Though some authors intend to tell their stories later in life, Jones wanted to focus his story on the time period from his upbringing in Texas through his mid-twenties to capture a specific ethos that informed his narrative. Concerned that segments of his life would become deemed irrelevant to readers, he found the immediacy of the news sparked him to publish the book sooner than later. Soon after Jones considered writing in detail about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, which shifted the LGBTQ+ conversation, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting occurred.

“Whenever I would get a little hard on myself about the book’s intentions, it felt like America would go, ‘We gotta do this now,’” Jones said. ”Everything’s not perfect but a lot has changed from 1998. [While writing,] I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’ll be a perfect book, but it’s gonna be the book that I want and need now.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After his mother’s passing in 2011, Jones is attentive to their relationship in How We Fight for Our Lives, endearingly dedicating the book to her even after a moment of uncertainty that occurred when he came out. In spite of having a vibrant relationship with his mother, Jones jokes that the two weren’t able to naturally discuss sexuality. Promoting the memoir before Thanksgiving, Jones mentions that some LGBTQ+ readers confided in him about their own awkward conversations with family.

“Sure, it’s important for us to write about clear and present danger, whether that’s police brutality, homophobic or racially-driven violence, [but] I think that it’s also important for us to pay attention to the more subtle hurts that come to define us. Sometimes those hurts are a result of failings; loved ones who just can’t support us because they’re like ‘I don’t get it’ and they kind of give up,” he said. “My mom was working two jobs, so a lot of times she was just tired. She was like, ‘Sorry, we can’t have a heartfelt conversation today, I gotta go to my second job.’ That had an impact on me, and I know that has an impact on a lot of other people in those moments. In any meaningful, long-lasting relationships—certainly family relationships—it is going to be complicated. If you don’t have multiple colors in how you’re thinking about that relationship, the truth is that something is being deadened, something is being intentionally or unintentionally ignored or silenced.”

An avid reader of works by Margaret Atwood and Audre Lorde, Jones recognizes a similar urgency from his memoir through his influence James Baldwin, admitting to reading his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room repeatedly, revisiting it at different points of his life to gain a new perspective. Identifying with different characters each time, Jones focused essentially on Baldwin’s deconstruction of queerness and social dynamics, which intersected American politics with racial identity. “[Baldwin] wasn’t going to pretend that there was this monolithic Blackness. He wasn’t just going to pretend that there weren’t Black men—who he was advocating for in terms of civil rights— who weren’t homophobic. He was like ‘We’re gonna do all this together’” Jones said. “He’s drawing from his background in Christianity, but he’s changed; he’s not practicing his faith in the same way. He [was] just doing a very good job of showing how we’re in flux and that it’s natural and better to embrace that. I feel like that set me up to start paying attention.”

Habitually enthusiastic about settling in Columbus (or what he calls “the promised land”), Jones speaks gleefully about The Great Migration and Ohio boasting essential Black authors—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacqueline Woodson, Hanif Abdurraqib and Toni Morrison. While he notes that Black authors have thrived

in Ohio through a formidable writing scene, in How We Fight for Our Lives, Jones touches keenly on the fragility of Black life. Days prior to our conversation marked the one-year anniversary of the death of 16-year-old Julius Tate, who was shot by Columbus police during a sting operation.

“If we’re able to villainize people we have wronged—and Julius was certainly wronged—it eases the rhetoric of brushing the wrong aside,” Jones said. “It happens so often and so much of our culture grooms all of us to move on. I’m not the one to say what justice for Julius and for Black people impacted by that violence looks like, but I would love to hear it. I have no interest in telling people to be quiet. I’m a writer, so I think a lot about editing and revision, and how you polish and the drafts you don’t want people to see. Cities are text, too.”

While Columbus continues to be a work in progress through systematic tensions, Jones is embracing the city’s tangible LGBTQ+ scene after residing in New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In support of the Black Queer & Intersectional Collective, he attended the Columbus March for Black Trans Women in November, where he felt a sense of cohesiveness within the city. “I feel like the march was a great example of waking me up—unsurprisingly, it’s easier for cisgender gay men to live and feel embraced here than Black trans women in Columbus,” Jones said. “The stakes are high, but it feels possible. Here it feels like, ‘start reading up, go to that march, talk to people,’ as opposed to ‘here’s the finished story.’”

With a story far from over, Jones reveals that his next life work is to write about joy to balance the scales with his past struggle within How We Fight for Our Lives. Avidly writing about pain and loss, he vows to dabble into more written frameworks outside of his comfort zone. “I feel like I’ve written about myself so damn much, maybe learning to write in other forms—fiction—would be fun. I want to learn more, I feel that’s when I’m most alive, when I’m learning and realizing that I’m learning,” he said. “That’s when I feel fully present as a person, not when I think I know the beginning, middle and end.”

Follow Saeed Jones on Twitter and Instagram at @theferocity.

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