February 22, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Man of few words

By |2018-03-21T19:07:40+01:00September 27th, 2015|Lifestyle Archive|
For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn, wrote Hemingway, who may have found the text in a classified ad.

ords are a big part of my day. I teach English to students of all ages. I also write. Funnily enough, the rules that apply to both teaching and writing are remarkably similar. Both are fundamentally about communication. As a teacher you have to gain and hold the interest of your audience. If they don’t understand what you’re trying to say it’s your own fault. You quickly learn there’s no room for unnecessary words. You must be ruthless.

Communicating in a foreign language with a limited vocabulary at your disposal is excellent training. Trying to explain the difference between “wear” and “where” or “hear” and “here” to discourages flowery asides. You must be as precise as possible or bewildered students hoping to buy a pear will just end up with two of everything.

Ernest Hemingway championed the art of terseness, and while I struggled unwillingly through “A Farewell to Arms” in my student days, I’ve recently come to discover where his true genius lay: the six-word story.

A bit of history should put this into perspective. As a teenager, I suffered long and hard with extra French lessons in the presence of an unpleasant smelling woman whose idea of teaching was to laboriously conjugate verbs. Her legacy helped trigger my personal crusade to make my own classes fun. And that quest saw me stumble on Hemingway’s exercise.

For those of you who don’t know the legend (some insist it was made up long after his death), Hemingway was lunching with friends at a Manhattan restaurant in the 1920s when he bet all of them $10 that he could craft an entire story in six words. He wrote the words on his napkin and passed it round the table. They all paid up.

The six-word story is a fun challenge to put to intelligent students with a limited vocabulary. But since it’s much easier to write something glib and miserable than something funny, you do need to be careful not to end up with glorified graffiti. Still, I urge you to give it a go. We live in the Twitter age, after all. You might even end up going viral.

Here a few six-word story examples.

“Last Will and Testament, Up Yours.”

“Thy will, will be over done.”

“There he is. With her.”

From the Internet: “You are not a good artist Adolf.”

The ever-perfect, “To be or not to be?”

But beating Hemingway’s six-word “novel” is next to impossible. He wrote, “For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.”

About the Author:

Lucy Brignall's "The Farm" column appeared between 2012 and 2016.