“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.”

Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway, who was a master of the short story and of tight, spare writing, once made a bet that he could write an entire story in six words. With the above “ad,” he won the bet.

This story – both the one by Hemingway and the one about him – has inspired a number of literary organizations and publications over the years to sponsor writing contests challenging participants to write stories consisting of a mere six words. Some are more generous and allow up to ten.
An editor friend of mine recently forwarded the details of one such contest. Normally, I take a quick glance at things like this, briefly consider writing and submitting something, and then toss it aside and get back to whatever else I was doing. But this time, something popped into my head that would actually make a good entry. It fit the limited word count requirement and the rest of the contest rules. So I sent it in.

I can’t tell you here and now what I wrote because one of the rules is that submissions must be original and unpublished, so I would disqualify myself by including my entry here. But I’ll keep you posted on the results, should I win or make the list of finalists. The entry deadline is May 5, and the winners will be announced in June.

Since entering the contest, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the idea of telling stories – especially life stories – in just a handful of words. I’ve thought of different occasions and incidents that have shaped or defined my life in a variety of ways, and of six words that might capture or describe each of them. Some are totally accurate, others show how I saw myself or the world at the time. Feeling awkward and self-conscious as a child, for instance, and not wanting to feel left out or insignificant: “Attended school. Graduated. No one noticed.”

Near the end of my first year in college, I changed my major from Med Tech to English (with a minor in Journalism) after realizing that the medical field was totally wrong for me. It was the right decision, but a difficult one, especially when my advisor asked if I’d talked it over with my parents, since for them it could mean the difference between having a daughter in a well-paying, highly respected career, and having a daughter who couldn’t find a job. I did it anyway: “Changed my major, changed my life.” And if I were allowed more than six words, I would add, “No regrets.”

Other stages and stories of my life would include, “Married my soulmate. Still together.” “Raised two teenagers. We all survived.” “Cancer. Heart damage. Much stronger now.” “Searching for meaning, I found Uganda.”

What six words could describe different ages and aspects of your life? What incidents or occasions would you emphasize or focus on? Even figuring that out could be an enlightening exploration, telling you things about yourself you weren’t even aware of.

Some people would consider this a tedious and irrelevant exercise, I suppose, but to me it’s fascinating. Although I’ve always enjoyed helping people to look inside themselves and discover the nuggets of strength and wisdom that are there, it’s only in recent years that I’ve come to realize how truly valuable that is – which is odd, considering it’s what I’ve been writing about in my column for the past 13 years.

If I ever really had to condense my life – or the part of it that defines me the most clearly – into six words, I think perhaps it would be these: “Discovers buried treasure. Writes about it.”

Ernest Hemingway would be proud.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on March 6, 2014.
©Betty Liedtke, 2014

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