Legend has it that famous author Ernest Hemingway, out to lunch at the Algonquin, bet a table full of fellow writers he could write a short story in just 6 words. His companions had their doubts and wagered 10 dollars each to put Hemingway to the test. As the tale goes, Hemingway believed the resulting story to be his finest work ever.
Although the validity of this anecdote is contested, there’s absolutely no question this is a darn fine short story. Like all stories it has the basics – a beginning, middle, and end. As well as all the things that make a story great – emotion, detail, and interest.
The tale of Hemingway’s ‘baby shoes’ continues to interest literary fans to this day, and six-word stories (classified as a ‘short short stories’ or sometimes ‘flash fiction’) can be found all over the place.
But perhaps most notable is a book series created by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleisger of Smith Maganize. In 2006 they asked Smith Magazine readers to submit their life stories in just 6 words. From this grew their first book, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs from Writers Famous & Obscure, and after this came an entire book series. You can read a few excerpts in this NPR story or go to their website (linked above) where they share all sorts of stories.
I really like 6 word stories (for our purposes six word stories, statements, and exclamations), especially when talking about feelings and emotions. Emotional expression often makes people nervous and uncomfortable which is why we sometimes shy away from them. Show of hands, how many of you feel uncomfortable the minute something emotional leaves your mouth? Either you clam up or you awkwardly keep talking all the while wondering just how strange it would seem if you started running in the other direction.
Six-word stories are the perfect little drive-by of emotional expression. You can throw it out there and leave it open to interpretation. Interestingly enough, because of our common threads and shared experiences, we can often intuit enough about the story to understand exactly what it means. Which leads me to wonder, why am I wasting so much time talking when all I need are six words!?!
Brevity is certainly not my strong suit, yet the constraints of choosing only 6 words feels strangely freeing. It relieves the pressure of writing a perfect and precise story or explanation. The flip side of this of course, for all you men and women of few words, is using only six words sits right there in your verbal comfort zone.
The key to the six-word story, statement, or exclamation is finding the perfect 6 words to communicate your point. If we were talking strictly about ‘stories’ we would say that you should strive for a beginning, a middle, and an end; but because many of us are trying this exercise for the first time, we’re not going to worry about the structure so much as the content.
I found an interesting story while I was reading about the Smith Magazine book series on Wikipedia (my top source for information behind IMDB). In February of 2009 Smith and Fershleiser appeared on the Leonard Lopate Show on WNYC. During the segment a listener (Anne from Hell’s Kitchen) shared her six-word memoir…
“I found my mother’s suicide note”
Sparking an intense discussion on how Anne came to terms with her mother’s death and the role the note played in this. The suicide note itself was just six words…
“No flowers, no funeral, no nothing.”
I was struck by how perfectly both of these six-word statements conveyed the emotion, turmoil, distress, and despair that would likely be found in the longer version of the story. A few carefully chosen words can tell the whole story.
Of course many find benefit in telling their whole story (many don’t) but I think there is certainly a place for six-word stories and statements in therapeutic emotional expression. It’s an art form which allows you to express something by picking and choosing the details you wish to convey, and allows others (if you care to share) to draw on their inner-selves and shared experiences to interpret the narrative.
For this reason we put together a brief journaling exercise. The following are 11 things I want you to write a 6 word story about. For those of you who do the exercise, I think you will be surprised by some of the words you ultimately choose.
Afterwards you will see Litsa and I have shared our 6 word stories. If you feel up to it, please share yours as well in the comments below, on Facebook, or Tweet it to @whatsyourgrief on Twitter.
Using only 6 words write:
1. A story about your loved one
2. A story about the death
3. A story about you before he/she died
4. A story about you after he/she died
5. A story about a good memory
6. A story about something that makes you mad
7. A story about something that gives you anxiety
8. A story about something that gives you hope
9. A story about how you feel about death
10. A story about your loved one’s best quality
11. Something you wish people knew about your grief.
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