Less is More: How to Write a Six-Word Memoir like Ernest Hemingway

Follow Ernest Hemingway's lead and teach your pupils to write their own six-word memoir!

By Bethany Stagliano

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Envision writer Ernest Hemingway sitting at a table, joking and laughing with friends and colleagues. Jovial conversation turns to money-making opportunity when his friends bet that he can not write his life story in only a few words. Hemingway, a master of brevity, immediately grabs a napkin and writes: "For Sale: baby shoes, never worn." He wins the bet.

While not all of us have the skill level of this infamous Nobel Prize-winning American author, famed for classics such as For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, we can certainly learn from and emulate his writing style. After all, if Hemingway could write his memoir on a napkin, how hard could it possibly be?

Introduce The Six-Word Memoir Challenge

Lead into this assignment with the story above, and then spend a bit of time analyzing just what Hemingway’s six words really meant. Open up your classroom for a discussion. Why are there baby shoes for sale? What are the implications of them never being worn? Were they his baby shoes?

Then there’s the punctuation to consider. What does that add to the meaning? Would changing the punctuation alter the story?

Encourage figurative and outside-the-box thinking. Hemingway probably did not literally mean baby shoes when he wrote those words. As a seasoned writer, those words were most likely very personal; perhaps they symbolized his childhood, his relationship with his mother, or something completely different. The possibilities are endless.

Challenge students to come up with as many plausible stories as they can to help flesh out and interpret Hemingway’s memoir. Once they’ve seen the depth of meaning that can be pulled from six words and a few punctuation marks, they’ll understand why this assignment is no laughing matter.

Any grade can participate in this activity–older students will likely be more adept at getting to some of the deeper metaphorical and symbolic meanings. You can choose to make the assignment as literal or abstract as is appropriate for your class’s age and learning objectives.

Gather Ideas

Whatever angle you choose to assign, brainstorming is the key to success. Have students think up as many adjectives as they can to describe themselves, their personalities, and their interests. Or, have them focus on their most enjoyable or impactful life experiences. They could also go broader and think about overarching themes that run throughout their life. The goal is to think of as many words and experiences as possible that mean something to them on a personal level.

Form the Story

Once a list of words and ideas has been formed, it’s time to select the best ones to create the memoir. Your class should know that stories need three things: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is a good time to discuss how Hemingway’s example achieves this goal. Point out how some (or you could argue, most) of the story was left up to the reader to interpret. You may also want them to consider whether Hemingway’s words tell the beginning of his life story, the end, or somewhere in between.

Your students will know they have written a story when they are able to visualize what happened. There should be an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion–albeit short ones! Again, refer back to Hemingway's memoir and discuss how his words allow the reader to see the story in their mind’s eye. We may not understand exactly what he meant by his words, but there is a clear flow to his story, and we can make sense of it as readers.

As your young writers devise their six-word memoirs, remind them that, unlike Hemingway, they will probably need to write multiple drafts to come up with the perfect memoir...he had a lot more practice under his belt, after all! Encourage them to carefully choose words that will make sense to the reader, but also have a hidden meaning to add power and purpose to their tale.

Publish Your Memoirs

Once all the hard work of word-smithing is complete, it’s time to celebrate and share their efforts. Ways to publish are virtually endless, so here are just a few ideas:

  • Submit to a site such as SmithTeens.com that runs six-word memoir contests. Winners can receive prizes, or at the very least get published. Win or lose, this creates an authentic audience and task for your class.

  • Have each author create digital or hand-drawn artwork to go along with their memoir, and then post it on the class website or display it in the classroom.

  • Throw a memoir slam (like a poetry slam). Each author reads his memoir to an audience in an animated, thoughtful manner. Have someone impartial, like the principal or another teacher, come by to be the guest judge.

Read Between the Lines

There are many interpretations of Hemingway's six-word memoir. This is what helps to make it profoundly personal, and yet difficult to write your own. Every reader can attribute his own meaning to each word, yet only the author knows the true import. The simplicity of the task is precisely what makes it so challenging, and it is also what will make it so rewarding for the aspiring authors you teach.

Whether or not Ernest Hemingway actually started the six-word memoir movement, we will never really know. However, it is a fun way to get those creative juices flowing.

Related Lessons and Activities:

Writing Memorable Lines

Examining sentences for meaning helps pupils learn to create their own concise stories.

Memoir Writing

This site provides multiple resources to assist in teaching about memoirs and memoir writing.

Fishing with Hemingway

A background of the well-known author chock-full of discussion questions and online assignments.