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Short, Short Stories

April 04, 2013

Listening to National Public Radio a few weeks back, I happened to hear a piece about the Race Card Project. This project asks people to think about the word "race" and then jot down their thoughts in a sentence that has only six words. The "six words" part of the challenge comes from an apocryphal story about a "bar bet" and Ernest Hemingway, but more about that later.

I first became interested in the short, short story genre when I read one titled Cousin Len’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar by one of my favorite authors, Jack Finney. Although Finney is better known for his novels (several of which were made into movies), he was also a fine short story writer. His stories were published in many magazines back in the 1950s and 1960s. The Adjective Cellar piece was included in a collection of his short stories published under the title The Third Level. This particular story is about Cousin Len, a freelance writer for a nature magazine. He purchases the adjective cellar on a whim while browsing in a pawn shop one day. When he got home, he happened to be examining the salt-cellar like object just after he had composed his latest article. To his amazement, the instrument "whisked" the superfluous words off of the page he had just written. Noting the improvement in the prose, Len began testing the adjective cellar on other pieces he had written. He found the closer to the page he held it, the stronger the effect and the tighter the wording. Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Cousin Len used the cellar regularly. The story ends with the following words: "I used it at the inch-and-a-half level, in writing this. Which is why it’s so short, of course."

Supposedly, the "six word" Hemingway short story came about from a challenge issued by a bunch of writers lunching at the Algonquin and its famous "round table." Hemingway claimed he could write a six-word long short story. The other writers doubted his word and this resulted in a bet, at ten dollars a head that Hemingway would match in the pot. If he succeeded, he would win the bet and keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The short story he wrote won the bet. The story? "For Sale. Baby Shoes, Never Worn." There is some debate over the veracity of this story. You might want to check out the urban-myth website piece on it at Snopes.com.

I think I’ve found an example that does Hemingway two words better, with only four words. This piece is actually the title of a song by Emily Kaitz of Austin, Texas. Ms. Kaitz is quite a songstress and humorist. She wrote a song about a fortune-teller of short stature. This vertically-challenged psychic is on the lam, running from the police. Her title, "Short Medium at Large," says it all. I like to think she borrowed Cousin Len’s Wonderful Adjective Cellar and used it at about the quarter inch level. Don’t you agree?

Ken L.
Antioch Branch

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