“For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Used”

It seems there’s been a lot of buzz about this little quip lately, or maybe it’s just me. The last time it flared up like this (the last time that I remember, anyway) was before there was an internet to rant on, so I missed that chance (yes, yes, yes – I’ve heard everything you kids can say about being alive before the internet). Now it’s come around again, and this time, I’m ranting.

The story goes that Ernest Hemingway (maybe – see below) was challenged to [tell a story in six words] [tell a story in as few words as possible] [tell a story in less than one full sentence] (depending on your source), and he came up with “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” The story also claims, sometimes, that he considered it his greatest work ever.

First off, just for the record, I’ve heard this attributed to at least a half-dozen other authors, and at least two of the claims offered “proof.” I have no reason to doubt it came from Hemingway, who was, after all, famous for the terseness of some of his prose. There was a man. He was old. He had a boat. He had a friend. The friend was a boy. I’m just pointing out that it is sometimes given as the work of someone else, and at this point in time, I don’t know what it would take to “prove” it one way or another (bear in mind that we can’t really prove our own existence to each other).

Secondly, with all due respect to Mr Hemingway (or whomever), I disagree that this is a story. It is true that there are many stories, probably thousands, of which these six words could be a synopsis, but they are not a story, in and of themselves, precisely because we have no way of knowing which story they tell.

You’ve been told all your lives that a story requires conflict. Ok, maybe they used a different word some of those times. Tension, struggle, opposition, and other words have all been put to this task, and I had a teacher a million years ago who was quite thoroughly infatuated with the phrase “the tug-of-war of opposing greatnesses.” I refuse to even speculate why. No I don’t; here’s my speculation: it was the single greatest phrase from his dissertation for his master’s degree (imagine the rest of it).

Anyway, they’re all wrong. Story is not about conflict. I can write about conflict till the cows fly off the telephone wires, and leave you unsatisfied and unwilling to ever read my work again. Story is about conflict resolution. I must give you, not only conflict, but a right and proper resolution of that conflict, or you’ll hate me forever. These six-word so-called stories do nothing except ask questions. They provide no answers, they provide no resolution, and they are not stories.

By the way:

The book, Cursing the Cougar, goes to J. Stenholt of Massachusetts, who tells me she is “proud to be one of the three.” More books coming, same bat-time, same bat-channel.

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3 responses to ““For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Used”

  1. poeticgrin

    I’ve read several of your posts this morning and have greatly enjoyed them, though I must admit I am a bit scared of including a grammatical or mechanical error within this comment.

  2. Got your comment. I agree, a story can’t truly be told in six words or less. Bad stories also have conflict/resolution. Good stories nurture creativity, pique imagination and make you think beyond the prose. I think the point of the exercise was to make you try to create wonderment. Anyway, I stumbled upon your site (obviously) through your comment and now I’m going to read some of your 1000+ word stories. Well done.

  3. levimontgomery

    Thank you both for your comments, and I’m sorry I took so long to approve them, but there seems to be something broken in the email setting. I’m off to investigate.