Capturing hard times – in only 6 words

By Eric Freedman

The COVID-19 pandemic is all around us, saturating news reports, dominating conversations, shuttering businesses, isolating hundreds of millions, disrupting schools, derailing sports and the arts, befuddling science.

Meanwhile, pummeling us are natural disasters as diverse as wildfires in Australia and the American West, hurricanes and tropical storms in the Caribbean and Southeast U.S., typhoons in Japan and the Koreas, landslides in Nepal and India.

How do we express and capsulize the complex mix of emotions and realities engendered by these powerful forces that are so much out of our individual and collective control?

I assigned students in our Environmental Reporting class to do just that – in only six words. My major goals were to help them focus on and recognize the importance and power of words and to improve their storytelling skills. In that way, the assignment is an offspring of a previous exercise, designed by Knight Center senior associate director Dave Poulson, in which scientists and science graduate students encapsulate their research in a haiku.

The inspiration for the task was a recent New York Times opinion piece, “The Pandemic in Six-Word Memoirs,” in which author Larry Smith wrote: “Since 2006, I’ve been challenging people to describe their lives in six words, a form I call the six-word memoir — a personal twist on the legendary six-word story attributed to Ernest Hemingway: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ I’ve found that some of the most memorable six-word stories arise in the extremes — during our toughest and most joyous moments. So over the past several months, I’ve asked adults and children around the country to use the form to make sense of this moment in history: one person, one story and six words at a time.”

Without showing my students the responses included Smith’s opinion piece, here’s what they came up with. (I selected one submission from those who devised more than one.)

You must stay six feet away.  –  Chioma Lewis

Living in a time with unknowns.  –  Lea Mitchell

Me, myself and my inner dialogue.  –  Lillian Young

Cases rising, fires spreading, what’s next,  –  Audrey Porter

Coronavirus: The year Earth stood still.   –  Anne Hooper

We did not see this coming.  –  Kalah Harris

What’s the day of the week?  –  Kathleen Fitch

World meets new coronavirus. Chaos ensues.  –  Claire Moore

And here’s my own contribution: Fear. Friends. Frenzy. Fever. Falsehoods. Future?


Eric Freedman is director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism

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