Elegance of the six-word story

Celebrated novelist Ernest Hemmingway was once reported to have made a bet with companions that he could write a novel in six words. He asked each to put $10 in a pot, saying that if he could construct a story with a beginning, middle and end within the six-word limit he would win the pot; if not, he would pay each participant $10 each. On a napkin he wrote, “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” His companions conceded the six words indeed told a story.

My pastor, Ben Williams, willingly acknowledges that he is sometimes loquacious and was intrigued after reading the story about the Hemingway experiment in Smith Magazine. He pondered to an overflow crowd last Sunday if the Easter story could be told in just six words, confessing he had spent sermon prep time contemplating how to do so. Further scripture study revealed that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew had already done it. In Matthew 28, Mary has gone to the tomb and found Jesus gone. An angel tells Mary, “He’s not here. He has risen.” The beauty, brevity and simplicity of this passage clearly tells the resurrection story.

The Smith Magazine article challenged readers to tell either their own or a story they developed in six words or less. The magazine received more than a million replies. Could you tell your life story in six words or less?

I accepted the six-word challenge to write my own story and, finding the task more difficult than first imagined, concluded it might be easier to write about someone else. My mind jumped to Bill Friday, the founding president of the UNC System. I wrote: Humble educator. Moral Compass. Passionate supporter. As to my own story, the best I’ve come up with is: Wonderful heritage. High expectations. Still unfolding.

Consider “silent” Calvin Coolidge, our 30th president from Vermont, best known for his paucity of words and directness of speech. One Sunday, coming out of church, a reporter asked the president what the preacher had spoken about that day. Coolidge said, “Sin.” Needing more for a news story the reporter then asked what the preacher had said about sin. “He was agin it,” Coolidge responded. On another occasion a woman sitting next to Coolidge at dinner boasted she had made a bet she could get more than two words out of him. “You lose,” Coolidge said.

There’s something to this less is more concept. Anyone who writes or speaks knows it is harder to write a short report or speech than a longer one. With so many voices trying to speak to us about an ever-increasing base of information there is little question that fewer words can make a greater and longer lasting impact.

Could this same process be employed in describing the world situation, our nation or our state? My suggestion for North Carolina’s story would read: Magnificent assets. Ongoing struggles. Statesmen needed. For the U.S., my contribution would be: Unlimited resources. Highly divided. Desire unity. For the current world story it would be: Great unrest. Searching solutions. Want peace.

Perhaps you could do better and I would love to hear your six word contributions. Send them to tomcamp@carolinabroadcasting.com.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, airing Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on WRAL-TV and at 8:30 a.m. on WRAZ-TV FOX50. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.