The story goes like this: Ernest Hemingway was lunching with some friends at a restaurant. He bet the table ten bucks that he could write an entire novel in six words.
After the money was gathered, he wrote on a napkin: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” He passed it around the table and collected his winnings.
Considered an extreme example of “flash fiction,” the story of Hemingway’s challenge has become the foundation for a challenge in which anyone can participate. Which makes it a great challenge for the library to throw out during BC Culture Days from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.
The library’s six-word story challenge, which runs Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, is open to teens and adults. It’s fun, and we’ll post your stories (on post-its, of course) in the library and on our web page.
There are lovely literary prizes, and of course your own 15 — make that six — seconds of fame. It’s just one aspect of Culture Days at the library, which offers activities for kids as well.
We have some great flash fiction in the library or available through BC Library Connect (in which you can access materials province-wide with the click of the “hold” button, and they arrive magically by post), including my first introduction to micro-fiction in John Gould’s Kilter: 55 fictions, which was nominated for the Giller. Other practitioners of the craft include such disparate literary masters as O. Henry, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut and Franz Kafka, proving that micro-brilliance knows no boundaries.
Flash fiction is not a North American phenomenon; in Latin America, a short piece of fiction — flash fiction is usually a thousand words or less — is called a micro. The Danes call it kortprosa, and the Bulgarians call it mikro razkaz. So: bigger than a Hemingway-style, six-word wonder, smaller than your average short story, and in its own unique category within the often-underappreciated larger category of short stories.
In Canada we have brilliant short fiction, with authors that must include Timothy Findley, Mavis Gallant, Stephen Leacock, Alistair MacLeod, Margaret Laurence, W.P. Kinsella, Thomas King, and of course Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature — despite that fact that her early publishers told her she’d never really make it if she didn’t start writing novels.
Described as “An International Literary Saint” by Margaret Atwood (also a fabulous writer of short fiction), Munro’s early accolades were humbling at best: “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories” was the title of a 1961 piece in the Vancouver Sun.
She said, “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories.”
Munro wrote long short stories; Hemingway’s ran the gamut. Perhaps my favourite collection of all time is J.D. Salinger’s brilliant Nine Stories, in which the vast complexities of a family are revealed in a remarkable economy of pages that leave me anything but shortchanged.
In a six-word narrative, one might ask: What if we’re all just stories? It’s a good question. Personally, I think we are: walk in a graveyard and you can feel them around you. Stop for a moment on a crowded street and imagine everyone around you as ambulatory vessels full of stories. Walk in a library, and well… I’d say your story starts here.
Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Coordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For more information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.