Larry Smith Q&A

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I am completely thrilled to present a Q&A with Larry Smith, not only because he is a luminary in the story world, thanks to his innovative SMITH Magazine, but also because of a personal connection. Although we have not met, we did attend the same high school.

LarrySmith.jpg Bio: [From the SMITH Mag site]: SMITH founding editor Larry Smith has whirled around the media landscape for the past 15 years. He most recently was the articles editor of Men’s Journal, has been the executive editor of Yahoo! Internet Life, senior editor at ESPN The Magazine, a founding editor of P.O.V., and editor-in-chief of its sister publication, Egg, as well as an editor of Might magazine. While living in San Francisco, he was managing editor of the wire/syndication service AlterNet, and currently serves on the board of its umbrella organization, the Independent Media Institute. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Popular Science, Men’s Health, Salon, Slate, and other places. He has contributed personal essays to the anthologies Maybe Baby and Modern Love.

He has spoken on the power of personal storytelling, and how to engage an audience, in schools across America, as well as at foundations and nonprofits, and companies such as ESPN and Google. He most recently spoke at Ignite NYC, on the story of the Six-Word Memoir project. He teaches the class, “What’s Your Story: How to Deliver an Authentic Elevator Pitch,” at The Hired Guns Academy.




Q&A with Larry Smith:

Q: You and I attended the same high school (albeit 15 years apart) and had the same Latin teacher. You’ve already noted in correspondence with me that Latin class with David Rhody probably influenced your storytelling interests. Can you elaborate? Were there other aspects of Moorestown High School that were influential?

A: I’ve written and edited all my life, almost to the point of being boringly single-minded and directed, and that has a lot to do with having great teachers early on. My third and also fourth grade teacher, who then went by Lynn Bechdel (whose cousin, Alison Bechdel, author of the acclaimed graphic novel, Fun Home, has an illustrated memoir in our new Six-Word Memoir book), always encouraged her students to think differently, weirdly, and above all, to follow your passion.
The high school Latin teacher we share, David Rhody, is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met, and, as I’m sure you remember we read some of the greatest stories ever told in his class. Seeing Mr. Rhody popping up on Facebook was a total kick — that guy was always so cool. And then connecting him to you, and you and I to this tiny town in South Jersey was wild.
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I’m in touch with all many of my favorite teachers and mentors still. Last year Perri Geller-Clark (the advisor to the school newspaper) invited me to speak to a few of her classes at about storytelling and journalism; I’ve done the same with my nephews’ sixth and third-grade classes as well. In the past four years I’ve probably done more than 500 interviews and 50 live events, but there’s nothing been as scary, and amazing, as talking the third graders about storytelling. The class later sent me their own book of Six-Word Memoirs, Not Quite What We Were Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Mrs. Nixon’s Class, which I digitized and posted on SMITH. It’s the most amazing document I have from the SMITH Magazine journey.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: Since as long as I can remember it’s always been about stories for me — writing stories, reading stories, telling stories, retelling stories. At some point in high school I joined the school paper, got the journalism bug, and never looked back — or learned to do anything else.
Then as I moved along in my career, from waiter to freelance writer, freelance writer to editor, moving from smaller, scrappy spots (such as Dave Eggers’ Might Magazine and Randall Lane’s P.O.V.) to bigger publications (ESPN Magazine, Men’s Journal), the pieces I was most excited about reading, writing and editing, clipping and saving (I have an insane box of ripped out articles), talking about with friends, were the most personal stories. Not that this is unusual — who doesn’t love personal stories? — but personal stories are a true passion bordering on addiction.
When I launched SMITH Magazine on January 6, 2006 (National Smith Day), the idea was to create a new kind of web magazine around this old idea that great storytelling is at the core of the most soulful, lasting media. The content would be largely user-generated, then curated by people who edit for a living. It would be a new blend of the professional and the amateur, fueled by our populist, participatory mission: Everyone has a story. Now, four years later, we’ve got something much better: an online storytelling community.
blacksmith_silhouette_3.jpg Q: What people or entities (such as Web sites, blogs, books, organizations, conferences, etc.) have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: All the usual storytelling giants inspire me — Ira Glass, Anna Deavere Smith, Dave Eggers, Mary Karr, the late Spalding Gray, and Studs Terkel. And then there’s everything else, coming at us all the time: the lyrics of Lucinda Williams; what writer David Grann does when he tells a long, complicated story in The City of Lost Z, in The New Yorker; a blog post from a Twitter link from someone random.
You mention conferences and it’s so true; there’s so much good storytelling go one at conferences — I recently tweeted that “live speaking events are the new film festivals” and I believe it. I’ve never been to TED, but love the videos (as we all do…). Two conferences I have personally attended in the last year were just fascinating information wrapped around terrific storytelling. The five-minute talks at Ignite are a force of nature (I did one, the Six-Word Memoir project.) The presentations at the GEL Conference (Good Experience Live) are dynamite, from the story [embedded below] of a guy named Sal Khan who created the biggest YouTube school (by accident) to a woman who curates the Museum of Bad Art. And I’m headed to do a presentation at PopTech this fall which, which is a dream come true for a guy (or geek) who loves the culture of technology.
On a more personal level, the codename for the prototype [of SMITH Magazine] was Smitty, after my grandfather, a great storyteller in his day. Smitty came “SMITH” (all caps) as Smith is not only someone who works to create something (a blacksmith or a wordsmith) but is the most popular last name in America. SMITH represents us all, person-to-person, story-to-story. And SMITH is infused by something I witnessed with my grandfather: he loved to tell stories; he rarely did until he was asked. So that was an important lesson for me: everyone has a story, but often they aren’t asked, or made to feel their story is important.

Sal Khan at Gel 2010 (founder, the Khan Academy) from Gel Conference on Vimeo.

Q: What indications did you have that SMITH would succeed? Did you conduct significant research? How do you measure its success?
A: I don’t conduct nearly enough research or analytics, though I know that a typical reader is a smart, New Yorker reader, NPR listener who is often a teacher or a librarian. Most of what I know about how people feel about the site comes via email or at live events. When a young woman comes up to me after an event and says, “I just wanted to say thank you for SMITH, it helped me start writing again,” that will fuel me for a while, even on those days when get frustrated that it’s too much work.

swm_newcover.jpg Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?

A: I’m not sure there’s one favorite, but in terms of what I do at SMITH, time and time again we hear that people’s Six-Word Memoir were the words that spurred them on to write a longer story. Robin Templeton, whose Six-Word Memoir, “After Harvard, had baby with crackhead” (the first entry of our first book, pictured above), is working on her full-length memoir based on the story of her life she told in six words. In email letters and @smithmag twitter shoutouts, and readings across the country, we hear about families who do Six-Word Memoirs at reunions, couples that invite all the guests to write six words on the bride and groom. So this short, short story form has become a powerful catalyst and connector.

Q: Can you describe some highlights of SMITH’s evolution since 2006? What aspect of its growth makes you most proud?

A: When I launched the site in 2006, the idea was really as a web magazine with a user-generated component, and by the end of the first year it evolved into a storytelling community. The role of the editors became to feature (or curate) some of the content, as well as launch the occasional top-down, editor-driven projects (such as our http://smithmag.net/comics webcomics). If I walked into the concept of SMITH, and its tagline, “Everyone has a story,” thinking like an editor embracing the web, now I’m clearly a guy who runs a community who happens to have some editorial expertise. Which is a long way of saying: I didn’t set out to be a community builder, but I love it. And the launch of the Six-Word Memoir project was a massive community-building catalyst.
Week after week, people got in touch with us directly about how much the form meant to them, and how they’ve used it for their own projects and purposed. A woman named Abby sent us Six-Word Memoirs from her teen patients at a psychiatric hospital in Forest Park, IL. Jolene, a nurse in Oakland, CA, wrote to tell us this story about a patient with Leukemia:
“I was taking care of this 21 yr old guy who has had Leukemia since he’s been 8 yrs old. He’s pretty debilitated, is wasting away right now—a very sad case. I brought in your book and asked him to come up w/ his own 6-word memoir. He thought about it for about 2 minutes (mind you before that I could barely get him to engage w/ me, he was extremely depressed as you can imagine). He then just blurted out: ‘Fat man eats pie then farts.’ It’s a metaphor for life you see, we indulge ourselves then we die.”

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This summer we just launched a Six-Word Memoir project with the youth suicide org, TWLOHA.org. (I blogged about how that came about.]. The hope is that after we launch the projects online, later we will make Six-Word Memoir books, by and for their communities. In my in-box right now is a note from someone from a site called Babyheart.org about partnering on a six-word memoirs project about kids with CHD (congenital heart disease). And, of course, from kindergarten to grad school, teachers around the world find six-word memoir to be an excellent writing prompt. All these offshoots and outgrowths and collaborations feel good. It feels like we’re living up to one of SMITH Mag’s core beliefs: to make and facilitate better media, not simply more media.

Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?

A: Don’t be afraid to start. From there, I offer four words of wisdom that is a part of my philosophy about “just starting”: write drunk, editor sober. Whether you’re writing a letter, a report for work, or the story of your life, in six words or 60,000, put the words down. Don’t obsess over them, just effusively spill them down onto the page. Then edit. And when you think you’re finished cut another 10 percent of the text.

Q: Any future plans for SMITH you’d care to share?

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A: We’ve just launched a new community project that will turn into our next book called The Moment. The Moment will be collection of personal stories (as short as a tweet, as long as 700 words, done via a photo, illustration, or annotation of a letter) about how a single moment changed someone’s life in a profound way. As always with a SMITH project, most of the stories will come from ordinary people with amazing stories, via the web, with some famous folks sprinkled into the mix for the book that follows. If it works, which I think it will, we’ll have a web and book project that is smart, fun, inspiration, and addictive. I’d love for your readers to think about their own “Moments” and share them on SMITH. After all, everyone has a Moment.

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Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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