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One particular six word story has transcended popular culture, baffled experts, set off a stream of memes, and tugged the heartstrings of millions.. Of all the thousands of micro-fictions out there, this piece of creative writing has touched so many.
For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.
If this is your first time reading it, enjoy. It must have sparked a million imitations. But, the impact on first reading is still a gut-punch. How could six words offer such weight?
Who wrote For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn?
Picture the scene. We are in Key West at the tip of the US pan-handle, sat at a bar at the corner of Greene and Duval.
The bar’s name is Sloppy Joe’s. The night is filled with stifling heat, cooled only by ceiling fans. The bar is packed with raucous drinkers, who gather to sip their beers and exchange their stories.
Prohibition, the ban on alcohol, has been lifted, and there is much joy in the air.
Sat in one corner, a excitable group are arguing with grey-haired gent with curls in his whiskers.
‘You’re no great writer,’ a lean man, with milk blue eyes, says.
The bearded fellow, who looks handy in a fight, smiles, and takes a sip of his daiquiri.
‘I’m a telling’ you, Ernest. You’re more like the old man and the sea,’ the lean man continues. ‘Always trying to catch the fish but never succeeding.’
The rest of the group notice, the old man’s face is burning red. The lean man ups-the-ante.
‘I bet you, right now. Write the shortest story you can. We’ll read it. And if we like it, I’ll buy you drinks for the rest of the year.’ The lean man chuckles, confident it would take the man a least a year to write such a story.
Leaning forward, the bearded man reaches behind his ear and pulls out a chewed down pencil. He grabs the matchbox sat between them and frantically scribbles.
‘He’s got to make a note. The great Ernest Hemingway has to make a note so he can remember to start writing.’
The group cheer together, toasting their glasses.
Hemingway looks up from under his bushy, flecked eyebrows. He slides the scrappy note across the table.
The lean man continues to laugh for a short time, but then his face falls. With a gulp, he raises a hand to the barman.
‘Free drinks for Mr Hemingway,’ he cries.
On the matchbox, there were only six words. ‘For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.’
I tell you this story to make two important points:
First, even a tiny micro fiction can take many more words than six. This story is less than two hundred words long.
But, two, and more importantly, it’s fiction. It’s a story. As far as anyone know, Hemingway did not write For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.
So, who really wrote For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn.
One candidate is John DeGroot. He wrote a one-man-play about Hemingway called ‘Papa’, first staged in 1996. In it, Papa illustrates his skill for brevity with the six word story.
The Vintage News investigated and found a number of possible pasts for the story. In 1917 William R. Kane wrote a story about a wife who lost her baby, titled ‘ Little Shoes. Never worn.’
In 1921, there was an actual For Sale story published that read “Baby carriage for sale, never used.”
And in 1991, an book was written in Get Published! Get Produced! A Literary Agent’s Tips on How to Sell Your Writing. In the book, there is a reference to Hemingway indeed being the writer.
Apparently, Ernest Hemingway was lunching at Luchow’s with a number of writers and claimed that he could write a short story that was only six words long… . He quickly wrote six words down on a napkin and passed it around; Papa won the bet. The words were “FOR SALE, BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.” A beginning, a middle and an endVintage News
But nobody seems to know the origin for sure. The story has passed into popular culture without an author ever getting the credit. Hemingway often get’s named because of his famous control of language and willingness to cut out what was unnecessary.
Hemingway told us to,
Cut out the ornamentation.
Write one true sentence.
These two pieces of advice are perfect for anyone practicing the craft of writing a six word story.
So, if the baby shoes story is not written by Hemingway, then at least, I believe it has been dedicated to his memory.
What is the meaning of For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.?
From the stories words, we can infer that a woman was expecting a child. The woman was so excited and confident of seeing her baby that she had started buying the baby clothing. But the baby never came. She never gave birth. At some stage, she miscarried. Now, with time passed, she realises she is ready to sell the prized possession, either to rid herself of the tragic memory, or because she is in desperate need of money.
That’s already 100 words to explain one 6 word story.
Inevitably, six word stories cannot convey every detail of a story. In truth, a one thousand page tome still cannot tell you everything about a characters past, present and future. And why would anyone want that? Part of the art of writing is to distill words down to the essence of a story. Not to provide a second by second recording of a life.
The story, based on the interpretation above, is heart-wrenching. We can all immediately imagine the pain this sale must bring.
Above, is one interpretation the story. This six word memoir. But, of course, with a six word story, there may be others.
Perhaps, the mother herself is dead, died in childbirth with the baby inside her. Now, we realise it is her husband or family member who is methodically selling her possessions. In this interpretation, the story might almost be methodical. They have listed for sale, two chair, in need of repair, and one bed, with broken springs. The narrator may have held little emotion when they wrote the sale sign, not realising the impact of their words.
Or maybe, the baby was born. Maybe the mother was showered with gifts by many friends. So many gifts that she is now selling off the surplus to raise money for charity. Suddenly, the story has become hopeful and joyous. A wonderful moment for the narrator and their altruism
Or, perhaps you have a different way of reading the story.
Perhaps, this is the gift and the curse of a six word story. Any 6 word memoir is open to interpretation. That means the way I read the story may not be the way you read it. And, searching for the meaning is a great part of the joy. In this way, a six word story is poetry.
Why does the six word story For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn work so effectively?
First, depending on your interpretation of the story, its meaning is quite tragic and only a sociopath would struggle to relate to a woman losing her child and then selling the possessions. The imagery is clear.
The story is also structured to have a beginning, middle and end.
In the first phrase, we immediately recognise these two words from 1000 classified ads. From Craigslist and Ebay today, back to newspaper print when this story was written, these two words prime us. Ah-ha, we think – what is for sale? Will we want to buy it? The phrase is an invitation for us to consider the sale, just as a market trader might ask you to examine his goods on display.
Humans have been trading and going to markets for millennia. Deep within our culture, we know it is part of the human condition to seek out things to buy with our money. When we read “For Sale:”, our interest is piqued.
The next sentence is also two words. In some ways, the syntax mirrors the first two words. Notice that each is one syllable long. This is another clue to the Hemingway connection. The title of his book, “The old man and the sea” is consciously written in three letter, one syllable words. The simplest he could find.
This represents the middle of the story. We understand we are in a metaphorical market of sorts, and now we discover what is being sold in the market, baby shoes.
What does the reader think now?
Cute! Sweet! Awww! Lovely! Their voice might go gooey and a smile spread across their face. Most people love babies, and most people love babies feet. Most people love the idea of a delicate set of baby shoes covering those feet.
The very fact that babies cannot walk, and so the shoes are for show and for our pleasure adds to the joy.
There is also a tactile feeling. Are these baby shoes knitted out of wool? Were they home-made or bought? With white ribbon or trim. An image immediately pops into our mind.
By experience we know that in any For Sale text, you generally get advised on the condition of the product. Whether it’s new, or slightly scratched or well soiled. Or we get to see a price.
The ending hits us like a sucker punch. Yes, the shoes are used. There’s no problem with that. But NEVER used twists our whole understanding of the story.
This is not a happy story of a baby who has outgrown their shoes. This is about a baby who never got to wear them. And the mother or father getting through their grief. Did you feel a tingle run through you, I did.
Never used is a perfect example of a climax ending, that twists the plot, defying your expectations and yet perfectly in line with the story. Notice also, that it repeats the two word, one syllable per word structure of the beginning and middle. This is not an accident. It gives poetry and impact.
With longer works, you often scour back through the pages, trying to see what you’ve missed when a story shocks you like this. With only six words, you can read again and again, trying to find a different explanation. But no, your mind knows that as this story ends, there is no happily ever after. This is real life.
You can argue that the structure is akin to a joke. The punchline changes your understanding of what has come before. Jokes are also often short, and draw on popular references. What sets this apart is you are not intended to laugh on reading the punchline, you are expected to weep.
We know that a For Sale advert normally ends with a price. And perhaps, this is the final leap of our story. The ending is not listing a description, to help with the sale. It is telling us the price paid by the mother and child.
For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn is a beautiful six word story. A memoir from a mother. For anyone hoping to come up with their own six word wonders, I encourage you to study this story in depth, and I hope this analysis has helped.
What stories were inspired by For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never worn?
This story gave us a new poetical format sit alongside haikus and sonnets. It is versatile and powerful. It communicates an enormous amount in a tiny number of words. In some ways, it is the perfect form for the 21st century and our unrelentingly busy lives.
There are many writers of six word stories. My own book Six Word Wonder shares over 500 original six word stories, memoirs, jokes and poems.
I have also gathered links to some other Six Word Story collections for you to explore.
Stories in homage to For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn
Since being recognised as the inventor of the six word form, this story has inspired many responses. Other writers experimenting with the structure used here.
Below are a few examples of stories written by Doug Weller that playfully dedicated to For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn.
For Sale: Used parachute. Never opened.
A grim end for this skydiver?
For Sale: Clown Shoes. Too small.
What kind of feet does this person have?
For Sale: Colt revolver. Still warm.
Was it John Lennon who sang Happiness is a Warm Gun?
The New Yorker had a delightful stream of people trying to best the baby shoes story using the same, famous formula for sequels. Here’s a couple of highlights:
For sale: baby shoes. Really big.
Images of a giant baby leap to mind.
Please help. Huge baby at large.
Riffing on the idea that the baby shoes were being sold because they were too small.
For Sale: Baby Shoes. Never Worn – memes
The story has taken on a life of it’s own in meme form. Here’s some classics.
Read Hemingway’s essential advice about writing at the Writer’s Practice
Here’s Snopes fact checking the writer of our story.
The New Yorker – Baby Shoes sequels
Wikipeida’s entry for the story
The Vintage News in-depth investigation into the stories origins.
Quote Investigators own take on the origin story.
You can add your own riffs on Baby Shoes in the comments. And if you are now excited about Six Word Stories, there are many more to enjoy.
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For sale: Love letters. Never opened.