Hemingway's six words

A couple people suggested that Hemingway’s (allegedly) six word story need not be interpreted as tragic. Here it is, again: For Sale. Baby shoes, never used.

Some of you came up with far more interesting six word stories, but for the moment let’s stick with this one, which I called melodramatic and overwrought. My first read on this (and I’m not alone) is that the baby in question did not live to wear the shoes. Of course you could approach it differently. A lot of possibilities come to mind, some of them grizzly: baby born without feet or with deformed feet; really ugly baby shoes received as a gift, and the mother needs every penny she can scratch together; the mother received perfectly fine baby shoes as a gift, but she belongs to a religion which requires its faithful to go barefoot until the age of two; shoes were made in China, and parents won’t buy or accept gifts from China because they are protesting civil rights violations in that country.

You could go on like this for a long time, but the fact remains that if you only have six words, there is no space for explanations. The most obvious interpretation is the one you have to bank on. You could play with the six words you’ve got:

For sale: ugly unused baby shoes.

Need food. Selling extra baby shoes.

Buy booties: Proceeds fund reconstructive surgeries.

These certainly get a more nuanced message across, but do they work? I would say that they don’t, because the original’s problem is also its strength. It’s overwrought, but it also works at capturing the reader’s imagination.

So one final question. What do you take away from an exercise like this? Maybe it’s just a party trick, like balancing a plate on a stick. Is there something to be learned?

7 Replies to “Hemingway's six words”

  1. My prosaic first thought was that the baby didn’t bother wearing shoes. I imagine that many children prefer to be barefoot and loads of them pull off socks and shoes. And my prosaic second thought was that first-time parents often receive a lot of useless gifts. My mother was sent a delightful and very beautiful baby’s cardigan after I was born. Sadly, I was already to large to ever wear it and my own child was born too big for it.

    So one final question. What do you take away from an exercise like this? Maybe it’s just a party trick, like balancing a plate on a stick. Is there something to be learned?

    Each person’s interpretation of the six words probably tells you quite a bit about how her/his brain works. Clearly I’m not going to be writing fiction anytime soon.

  2. Yes as Laura says, everyone’s brain works differently. What might be the obvious interpretation to one person isn’t necessarily the obvious one to another.
    Maybe this is why I am rarely in the ‘98% of people will say orange carrot’ group in those e-mails that get forwarded. (You know, the ones where you do lots of adding and subtracting of random figures etc and then are asked to write down a colour and a vegetable or some such thing).
    That the baby had not lived was not my first thought when I read the six words. I actually thought ‘whose baby actually wears shoes anyway?’ . But then I know some people who refer to 2 and even 3 year olds as babies still, whereas I don’t.
    The differences are what makes things interesting

  3. I did think of death – certainly it’s about frame of mind when you read. I also thought of perhaps a girl child in the orient, bound feet. Or also of, again, a girl, not permitted to be seen outside. But that’s frame of mind again, all my babies happen to be girls. What would prevent them from activities that require shoes, anyway?

    What can this exercise reinforce? A reminder to read between the words (let alone, the lines). Understand that even 6 words can be misinterpreted – the writer is the only one who knows for sure what they meant when they wrote them, and even that intent can be questioned by perfect strangers. And that context is valuable. I think. Well that’s two cents for you.

  4. I think the exercise drives home the fact that whether your novel is six words or six hundred thousand words, each reader with derive his or her own interpretation of it which may be radically different from what you thought he or she would take away from it — or what you intended to be taken from it.

    It’s easy to think that with a few more words your novel can be more specific, but even with those, readers will derive a wide range of meanings from it that never entered your mind.

    This keeps college literature professors and literary critics in groceries.

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