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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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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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