by MOYE ISHIMOTO
Every writer knows this story. It’s the flashiest and most fictioniest sentence there is. It’s the purest example of a good plot: there’s mystery, there’s intrigue, there’s sorrow—and there isn’t even a verb!
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote it in a writerly competition with his writerly companions. He challenged his friends to write a novel in six words and voila! There it was, a masterpiece, like a solitary glacier floating in the icy waters of some cold ocean because one of the rules in writing is that you must compare Hemingway’s writing to glaciers.
Others, however, have run with it, crediting Hemingway for creating a new short form media perfectly balanced with poetry and drama.
In my first fiction class, the instructor passed around a piece of paper containing this story. He slowly read it aloud and in that pause that followed, we—a motley crew of retired engineers, copyrighters, a Trader Joe’s cashier and a really weird old man who I later learned invented the Southern California mini mall (thanks, Google)—were taken aback by its simplicity and the realm of infinite possibilities.
Taking turns, we went around the room and described what we thought this story was about. Some spoke about the obvious: heartbroken parents over a dead child. Others elaborated on the tragedy: was there a fire? Perhaps the baby was never born? A divorce?
We mapped the imagined plot on the chalkboard, pointing out the setting (“For sale”), the exposition as tiny as its subject (“baby shoes”) to the rising action to the climatic reveal (“never worn”) and the denouement in the silence left behind, questions raised and unanswered. Whatever the case and whoever the true author was, we all agreed that it was so, so, sad.
The instructor used these six words to illustrate the careful placement of words that invoke a strong narrative, how the abrupt ending coincides with the sudden lurch in our hearts as we realize the true state of being. Or something like that. I don’t quite remember, because I may have been too busy trying to figure out why that old man was so weird. He never wore socks!
Regardless, the story stuck with me, and I know I’m not alone. At times, they were inspirational, because if Hemingway (or someone) could do it, then so could I. Most of the time, they were the complete opposite, because let’s be real. If Hemingway (or someone, as Snopes.com would argue) could do it, then I most probably couldn’t.
But then I had a baby.
(Another six words that can say so much.)
A lot of things change after you have a baby. Your body looks mushy. Your hair falls out. Your friends disappear. New friends appear. Your underwear doesn’t quite fit the way it used to. You’re never alone. You do everything wrong. You doubt yourself. You’re suddenly drawn to every horrible news headline about abused children, thousands of species going extinct, and how we’re basically ruining everything for the next generation.
And this six word novel? This poignant string of letters that twists an invisible knife in your heart?
Hemingway (or whoever), I’m calling you out on your shit because it’s true. Your miniature story is COMPLETELY MEANINGLESS—or literature’s biggest prank.
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
The realization dawned on me as I was packing up the latest batch of clothes that our toddler had outgrown. She was only 15 months but was already fitting into an 18-month size (this is the part where your eyes glaze over), so gone were the cute little 9-12 month onesies, the miniature 12-month denim jeans with pockets (why pockets? What kind of baby needs pockets?) and the little socks. Alas, gone were the adorable Converse sneakers that she never got to wear. By then, I was fully aware of the ephemeral state of baby clothes: no matter how much money you spend on them, chances are they’ll be useless within a few weeks. They’ll pile up in the closet like lumpy, wrinkly reminders that every moment is fleeting, time is passing by too fast and again, we’re basically ruining everything for the next generation, so what’s the point of baby pockets?
Your options then are either to store them for later (because who knows if and when the next baby will arrive), donate them, or, if you’re lucky, sell them at an immediate loss (because this current baby has already drained your emotional bank account into the red).
So there, sitting in a tiny little shoebox on the dresser, was the world’s most famous six-word novel.
Except that there was no tragedy. There were no parents heartbroken over the loss of a baby. There was no divorce.
This is the real story: a baby grew up a size and never had a chance to wear his or her new shoes. The parents are logical, sane and emotionally stable, and also believe that keeping a pair of brand new shoes that no one in the household can wear is a complete waste of space because at this rate, these parents would rather throw themselves off a cliff before entertaining the thought of adding another child to their already wrecked lives. But certainly there’s a set of new parents out there, desperately searching for a pair of adorable Converse sneakers (infant size 6-9 months), never worn. They would like to find these parents, and in order to do so, they post an ad on Craigslist.
For sale: Converse baby shoes, never worn. $10 OBO.
Nice try, Hemingway (or whoever you are). You tried to mess with people’s minds but I figured you out, glacier or not. The only question your so-called novel raises is, “How much for those shoes?” Yeah, I said it.
You want some poetry and drama in six words? Try this.
Watch out. I’m on to you.*
*Yes, I’m well aware that Hemingway (or whoever the original author was) is dead. Please leave me alone.
Moye Ishimoto lives in Los Angeles where she works in television and is trying to figure out this whole parenting thing. The baby shoes, never worn, are still available if anyone wants them. Interested parties should tweet at her