Ernest Hemingway

half a dozen words, redux

Remember Hemingway’s famous (or infamous) short-short-short story?

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

We had a back and forth about this some time ago. I don’t particularly like Hemingway’s baby shoe story, which strikes me as maudlin and manipulative. However, I do think that writing this kind of thing is good as an exercise for limbering up the writing mind. I don’t have much success with it myself, but other people seem to really get a lot out of it. Which is one of the cardinal rules of writing: if it works for you, it works. That is, don’t argue with the muse. You know she’ll make you sorry if you do.

Charlotte sent me a link to Carolyn Kellogg’s LA Time weblog on this subject, which led me to Smith Magazine, a festival of six-word-long stories:

SMITH is the home of Six-Word Memoirs and a vibrant community of storytellers. Explore story projects, write your story & share it with friends.

[asa book]0061714623[/asa] The website is chock full of writing prompts.  You could, if you like, submit your six cents on everything from heartbreak to shirts. Even if you don’t care to jump in,  it’s  a good place to dig around in for ideas. And then, of course, there are t-shirts.

Larry Smith seems to be the mind behind the website, and he has coauthored (with Rachel Fershleiser) two books on this subject, most recently Six-Word Memoirs on Love and Heartbreak: by Writers Famous and Obscure. One example:

I loved the idea of you. — Audrey Adu-Appiah

Exactly how I feel about these six-word stories.

that one-sentence thing, new and improved

Sometime ago I had a brief scurry of posts about the Hemingway one-sentence story. You may remember. You may not.

Something far more interesting in the same vein: the radiant Robyn Bender sent me a link to the One Sentence website (and yes, Robyn, it had indeed escaped my notice). The idea:

One Sentence is about telling your story, briefly. Insignificant stories, everyday stories, or turning-point-in-your-life stories, boiled down to their bare essentials.

The idea was born from a blog entry several years ago that got a million (actually, only 14) responses. “Maybe this will take off more as its own site,” thought I. Let’s see.

You can read a couple pages of submissions in five minutes or so. You can also vote on your favorites (thumbs up or down). Some strike me as the beginning of a longer story, for example:

Because it’s difficult for me to bend, I cleaned the base of the shower with a pot scrubber tied to the bottom of my walking stick.


If you go over there and find a sentence you really like, would you post it here in the comments? I’m curious about how other people react to them.

writing prompt: ads

There are lots of writing exercises out there that involve the quick-fire approach of using an classified ad as a starting point. The infamous Hemingway baby shoes one-liner is an example (forgive me if I don’t provide the link, yet again). I often had students write or respond to personal ads as an in-class writing assignment. One kind of classified ad is less suited to this kind of writing exercise, and that is, job ads.

Job ads tend to be very dry. We need x, y, z; get in touch if this is you. Some companies take recruitment more seriously and they indulge in marketing speak. Wow, are we a great company to work for!

My personal advice for anybody writing any kind of ad? Stay away from WOW.

Every once in a while I see an employment ad that jolts me, the kind of thing that gets story ideas firing immediately. Here’s one I saw today:

Farsi Linguist with Final Top Secret / SCI clearance for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Who would apply for this job? Really, I’m serious. A fluent speaker of Farsi is somebody either native to that part of the world, or somebody with close ties and long associations. So I ask again: who would apply for this job?

Have you ever run across a job ad that stopped you in your tracks? I’m not talking about the overblown fake-ads (for example: earn 3k a month lounging on your couch and eating bonbons!) I mean real ads that are astounding or outrageous in some way. Back a long time ago when I was looking for my first academic appointment I remember seeing some postings that took my breath away, usually from small colleges, something like this: non-tenure track faculty member to teach four introductory composition sections each trimester, take over undergraduate advising for the English Department., and assume the normal range of administrative responsibilities.

Which basically meant: come work your rear off teaching the most time intensive courses we’ve got and anything else we can think to heap on your desk, including but not limited to sweeping the halls, fixing the copier, and taking notes at every itty-bitty committee meeting. We’ve got next to nothing to pay you and after three years or so when you’re rung dry, we’ll boot you out for the next new PhD desperate for a job. If you had any research aspirations or family obligations let us just say: ha.

And still, I have to say the Guantanamo Bay linguist is the most disturbing ad I’ve ever run into.

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?