Six-Word Stories, Statements, and Exclamations: A Journaling Exercise

Coping with Grief Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley


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.

For sale, baby shoes, never worn - Hemingway

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.

There are dedicated websites… 

Tumblr’s

and cool 365 projects

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 six-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 perfect little bite-sized of emotional expressions.  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.

six-word stories about grief

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28 Comments on "Six-Word Stories, Statements, and Exclamations: A Journaling Exercise"

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  1. Dawn Herring  May 6, 2013 at 4:32 pm Reply

    Eleanor,
    I love the succinctness of writing just 6 words to get your point across. What that does is really making you more aware of what you really want to say, getting to the heart of the matter. That’s the magic of journaling: Getting to the hear of the matter no matter what the situation is you’re writing about. I love the list of prompts you provide and the examples you shared. Helps solidify your premise.

    I have chosen your post, Six-Word Stories, Statements, and Exclamations: A Journaling Exercise, for the #JournalChat Pick of the Day on 5/7/13 for all things journaling on Twitter; a link will be posted on the social networks, on my blog and website Refresh with Dawn Herring, and in my weekly Refresh Journal: https://tinyurl.com/d82qa6u.

    #JournalChat Live is every Thursday, 5 EST/2 PST, for all things journaling on Twitter; our topic this week is Your Journaling: New Frontiers.

    Six words is a great place to focus. Thanks for the idea.

    Be refreshed,
    Dawn Herring
    Your Refreshment Specialist
    Host of #JournalChat Live and Links Edition on Twitter
    Author of The Birthday Wall: Create a Collage to Celebrate Your Child

    • Eleanor  May 6, 2013 at 5:41 pm Reply

      Dawn, I couldn’t agree more! I think so often people believe in order to journal they have to be great with words and write lengthy entries, when in reality they may garner just as much benefit from activities that focus on shorter entries/statements.

      Thanks for selecting our exercise for the #journalchat pick of the day. I will keep an eye out for the links and tweet/post as well!

  2. Gwen H  July 18, 2014 at 6:00 pm Reply

    1. A story about your loved one
    Best memories: sleepovers and giggling girls.
    2. A story about the death
    Daughter died at 19 not 91.
    2. A story about you before he/she died
    They were born, my life began.
    4. A story about you after he/she died
    Daughter died (half of me died).
    5. A story about a good memory
    The book smelled like childhood memories.
    6. A story about something that makes you mad
    They all lied. Bogeyman is real.
    7. A story about something that gives you anxiety
    So much loss. Am I cursed?
    8. A story about something that gives you hope
    There’s always hope. Until child dies.
    9. A story about how you feel about death
    Could a time machine save her?
    10. A story about your loved one’s best quality
    Smiling fiery compassionate sweet old soul.
    11. Something you wish people knew about your grief.
    Birthday balloons brought to grave. Devastating.

    • Eleanor  July 20, 2014 at 3:02 pm Reply

      “Smiling fiery compassionate sweet old soul”, I love that Gwen. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Jennifer  July 19, 2014 at 8:34 pm Reply

    1. A story about your loved one
    kicking legs: Daddy’s voice, chocolate custard.
    2. A story about the death
    delivery excitement, silent doppler, shattered hearts
    2. A story about you before he/she died
    excitedly dreaming of my heart’s completion
    4. A story about you after he/she died
    who am I now? still confused
    5. A story about a good memory
    memorized God’s fingerprints, nine pounds perfect
    6. A story about something that makes you mad
    an induction would have saved him
    7. A story about something that gives you anxiety
    God please don’t take another child.
    8. A story about something that gives you hope
    Eternally together, rocking, singing, completion. finally.
    9. A story about how you feel about death
    Blink of an eye everything destroyed
    10. A story about your loved one’s best quality
    Forevermore, he made my heart expand.
    11. Something you wish people knew about your grief.
    smiles deceive, everyday struggle, full closet

    • Eleanor  July 20, 2014 at 2:54 pm Reply

      Jennifer,

      These are so moving. Thank you so much for your willingness to share. I’m so sorry about the death of your dear baby. My heart goes out to you.

      Eleanor

  4. Gwen H  July 22, 2014 at 7:59 pm Reply

    Thanks, Eleanor. Thanks for sharing, Jennifer. Sorry for your loss.

  5. Theresa Williams  September 7, 2014 at 11:45 pm Reply

    I have begun the six word journal and I’m going to share it with my therapist!

    • Litsa  September 8, 2014 at 2:59 pm Reply

      That is great Theresa. Journals can feel overwhelming for non-writers, so I think a 6 word journal is a great idea!

  6. joan rescigno  December 30, 2015 at 4:03 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this idea and everyone who shared. I need to be a part of this group!

  7. Vicki  January 28, 2016 at 4:00 pm Reply

    1. A story about your loved one.
    Music man, husband, loves his daughter.
    2. A story about the death.
    Suddenly flames were consuming the sky.
    3. A story about you before he died.
    Separate yet connected, our beautiful daughter.
    4. A story about you after he died.
    Last flaming image refuses to leave.
    5. A story about a good memory.
    Our daughter loving the Christmas lights.
    6. A story about something that makes you mad.
    Our daughter reaction to his death.
    7. A story about something that gives you anxiety.
    It could happen to someone else.
    8. A story about something that gives you hope.
    His goodness repeats in his daughter.
    9. A story about how you feel about death.
    One short sleep, we wake eternal.
    10. A story about your loved one’s best quality.
    Always found forgiveness easy to do.
    11. Something you wish people knew about your grief.
    Why it’s difficult trusting God again.

  8. Alice  March 14, 2016 at 12:54 pm Reply

    Another morning, and he’s still dead

  9. Jennie  March 14, 2016 at 2:05 pm Reply

    Stillborn baby, born still, still born

  10. Barbara  March 14, 2016 at 6:33 pm Reply

    Who’ll be proud of me now?

  11. Hillary  March 15, 2016 at 12:03 am Reply

    You didn’t get to be born.

  12. Manette  March 15, 2016 at 6:02 am Reply

    Trapped. Hold her hand? Too late.

    Six words about my biggest regret.

  13. Marguerite O'Connor  March 15, 2016 at 9:34 am Reply

    Loving, working, faith-based mother/ friend

  14. Heidi Passalacqua  March 15, 2016 at 9:58 pm Reply

    Here’s to making it count! Cheers!

  15. Cindy Randall  October 6, 2016 at 7:26 am Reply

    If only just one more moment.

  16. Kacy  October 6, 2016 at 10:01 am Reply

    All we have is this day.

  17. brianna  December 4, 2016 at 3:01 am Reply

    You went out with a bang

  18. Marie  April 18, 2018 at 5:08 pm Reply

    1. A story about your loved one
    Sweet sounds of the sage’s song
    2. A story about the death
    Emptiness, without comfort; empty black hole
    3. A story about you before he/she died
    Full of wonderment, warmth, and support
    4. A story about you after he/she died
    Numb, empty, sad, depressed, alone, unsupported
    5. A story about a good memory
    Smiling, being sarcastic and laughing, birthday
    6. A story about something that makes you mad
    Sudden unplanned loss, loss of future
    7. A story about something that gives you anxiety
    Who will listen and be there
    8. A story about something that gives you hope
    Babies, kindness of strangers, children living
    9. A story about how you feel about death
    Inevitable, quick or long, loss endures.
    10. A story about your loved one’s best quality
    sarcastic survivor, authentic listener, own woman
    11. Something you wish people knew about your grief

  19. Marie  April 18, 2018 at 5:09 pm Reply

    1. A story about your loved one
    Sweet sounds of the sage’s song
    2. A story about the death
    Emptiness, without comfort; empty black hole
    3. A story about you before he/she died
    Full of wonderment, warmth, and support
    4. A story about you after he/she died
    Numb, empty, sad, depressed, alone, unsupported
    5. A story about a good memory
    Smiling, being sarcastic and laughing, birthday
    6. A story about something that makes you mad
    Sudden unplanned loss, loss of future
    7. A story about something that gives you anxiety
    Who will listen and be there
    8. A story about something that gives you hope
    Babies, kindness of strangers, children living
    9. A story about how you feel about death
    Inevitable, quick or long, loss endures.
    10. A story about your loved one’s best quality
    sarcastic survivor, authentic listener, own woman
    11. Something you wish people knew about your grief
    Emptiness is temporarily filled by kindness

  20. Pia lives  January 6, 2019 at 10:24 am Reply

    Using only 6 words write:

    1. A story about your loved one

    She is always in my heart

    2. A story about the death

    Didn’t understand what I did

    3. A story about you before he/she died

    Frightened, responsibilities, way out, not mine.

    4. A story about you after he/she died

    Erasure, freedom, loss, grief, love, hope.

    5. A story about a good memory

    Rachel’s Vineyard naming ceremony: Pia eternal.

    6. A story about something that makes you mad

    Only bunch of cells: no evidence.

    7. A story about something that gives you anxiety

    Women with rights: baby had none.

    8. A story about something that gives you hope

    Eternity: forgiveness from Pia. Tears wiped.

    9. A story about how you feel about death

    Sad: without forgiveness. Happy: eternal chances.

    10. A story about your loved one’s best quality

    She forgave: she loves: no malice.

    11. Something you wish people knew about your grief.

    It hurts: so quiet in here.

  21. Amanda  January 19, 2019 at 8:59 am Reply

    2. Wednesdays were ours, until that Tuesday.
    9. Still want “forever” promises to keep.
    11. Grief will turn 27, she didn’t.

  22. Alan  March 31, 2019 at 7:27 am Reply

    Story about death.

    I told you I was ill.

  23. Asher  September 23, 2019 at 4:34 pm Reply

    death knocks , time stops , jaw drops

  24. Tim  March 12, 2020 at 3:18 am Reply

    From the streets to law school.

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