Teachers always told me to write like Hemingway. With that lesson in mind, I feel the need to preface what follows: I apologize for, amongst other things, my long-windedness, loquacious garrulousness, bombastic verbosity, rambling blabbiness, general predisposition towards being voluble, and distaste of the laconic and brusque. Chiefly, I apologize for possessing a thesaurus.
One eleventh grade teacher (anecdotally, a teacher I once caught wearing a beret) read a personal essay I wrote about the blooming of Bradford Pears on Swasey Parkway. This seemed an appropriate, humble essay topic, so I was confused by my poor grade. Mr. Lee, hopped-up on a recent re-viewing of The Dead Poet’s Society, had me leap up on my chair to read a story to the class.
It was a Hemingway story. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Mr. Lee then recited the apocryphal tale of its origin, which he, nonetheless, took as gospel. Hemingway walks into a diner; a bar is not a wholesome enough place for irreverent high schoolers to encounter in lessons, so Hemingway walks into a diner. He turns to his friends—who weren’t on their cell phones, Mr. Rowen—and says, “I bet you I can write a short story that is only six words long.” They make the bet, he writes about baby shoes (how twee!), and everyone at the table cries (their drinks are taking forever to come). Mr. Lee told us that this was the power of brevity.
My response: “Hemingway’s bet, itself, took fifteen words.”
Mr. Lee suspiciously ignored this and dared me to write him a six-word story by the beginning of next class. I one-upped him and delivered my story on the spot, the spot still being atop my wobbly desk chair. “Yard sale: baby shoes, already worn.”
Mr. Lee said I missed the point. The Swasey Bradford Pear blossoms remained reserved, bundled tight like a baby in a blanket, on the precipice of splitting open like the spray on a lake’s surface as a falsely skipped stone plummets after a solitary hop—and I received my C-.
A few months of English class bereft of joy later, I was cutting words from essays like someone making space to cram more accomplishments into a character-count limited college application. My writing did get better. Mired in a positive feedback loop, I truly immersed myself in brevity, and my sentences became strings of monosyllables. My writing got boring.
Here’s the thing. Mr. Lee was half-right. Overwriting is miserable to read. But, the power of Hemingway’s short story is not in its brevity. The most obnoxious people you know are probably pros at telling stories in 140-characters, but you would never assume that means their stories are high literature.
The power of his story lies not in its succinctness but rather in the definiteness that succinctness exports. You can tell Hemingway’s short story over-and-over again in six words that don’t create a good piece: for example, “She miscarried, needs her money back.” Brevity is important, but only insofar as it is evocative and not on the nose. Hemingway’s story is clear enough to convey meaning and is still suggestive.
If brief writing sacrifices the latter, give me thesaurus-heavy writing, prolix prose, and interminable gabbiness.
—Ben Rowen, BFR Editorial Staff