Tuesday, August 7, 2012

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn

Legend has it as such in order to settle a bar bet among a "round table" of preeminent writers and thinkers, Ernest Hemingway won by writing a complete short story in six words. His colleagues all thought him insane. They bet against him being able to make anything of potency or value with such limited resources. Hemingway wrote:

For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

I can just imagine that room full of high brow folks. They would all be sitting there enjoying their afternoon. Then with six tiny words Hemingway shows them that they all only thought they were great writers. With such minimalism he had shown so much.

Those six words ignite an eruption in my mind. There are these poor parents with their cheeks carved from the months of sobbing. They have lost their entire world. My mind races to imagine what has happened to the child to have taken its life. I think of the parents being so distraught that they let all other affairs fall by the wayside. They eventually gather themselves just barely enough to sort through life in the wake of this tragedy. They haven't totally come to grips with the death of their baby but they are selling its things. They are selling the baby shoes partially because they need any money they can get. They have been so traumatized by the event that they have hardly worked in months. They are also selling the shoes as to remove the constant reminder that their baby is gone.

This horribly sad story could fill volumes and volumes. I feel like it would be simple to write an entire novel around the plight of these people.

Hemingway sparked all that with six tiny words.

I'm sure Hemingway didn't see his bar bet as any kind of crowning achievement. Hell to be honest he probably did it more as a whisky induced act of bravado. I'm sure he smiled as he spent his colleagues' losses on the next round of drinks but I doubt it crossed his mind much afterward.

Well to me it was more significant than that. Hemingway's bar bet has lingered in my mind since the instant I heard it the first time.

It lingered in my mind because I believe word efficiency is the most important tool for a lyrical songwriter and I believe Hemingway may have made the most effective use of six words possible. This is a remarkable feat.

When I sit down to write or when I go into schools to teach songwriting or when I analyse the lyrical content of my favorite songs, word efficiency is one of the first things I take note of.

To convey the specific emotion one wants to convey through writing (in my case songwriting) it takes a great deal of effort and attention to detail. It is not an easy task at all. Scenes and scenarios must be set up just right so that the character (whether it be the writer, another real person or a fictitious character) is faced with the exact conflict to evoke the exact response and/or emotion the writer wants the listener to understand/feel.

And THEN.....

THEN comes the art of word efficiency. After the story has been set up, the trickiest part remains, namely stating it in the most succinct efficient way.

Through my study of songwriting, I have grown to love the writing of some more literal lyricists (Willie Nelson, Mac MacAnally, Jim Croce), some more metaphoric lyricists (Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan) and those who tread between the two styles (David Wilcox, Rodney Crowell, James Taylor). Every one of the writers I mentioned write in a unique style, however they ALL are masters in efficiency.

I thought maybe for fun I'd think through a lyric from each of the writers above and show how efficient the masters are.

Willie Nelson: 

"If you can truthfully say that you've been true just one day, That makes one in a row, one in row, one in row."
    -from "One In A Row"

Mac MacAnally: 

"Babies cry all day sometimes for nothin
And I have cried all day for not much more
Well it aint easy when you hate the things you're lovin
And you wonder what or maybe who you're lovin for..."

      - from "Crazy World"

Jim Croce :

 "Photographs and memories
Christmas cards you sent to me
All that I have are these
To remember you..."
     -from "Photographs and Memories"

Tom Waits:

"Don't ya know there ain't no devil that's just God when he's drunk"
          - from "Heartattack and Vine"

Leonard Cohen:

"And the last time that I saw her she was living with some boy
Who gives her soul an empty room and gives her body joy."

    - from "Death of a Ladies's Man"

Bob Dylan:

"The man in the trench coat Badge out, laid off Says he's got a bad cough Wants to get it paid off.."

    - from "Subterranean Homesick Blues"

David Wilcox:

"And I'm strong enough to take it
And I know what you've been through
You've got a whole heart
Give me the hard part
I can love that too"

   - from "The Hard Part"

Rodney Crowell :

"Turnin' tricks on Sunset, twenty bucks a pop.
Some out of town old business man or an undercover cop.
I'm living with that virus flowing way down in my viens.
I wish it would rain."

     - from "I Wish It Would Rain"

James Taylor:

"Well, the sun is slowly sinking down, the moon is surely rising. This old world must still be spinning round, and I still love you!"

     -from "Close Your Eyes"


Each of the lyricists I referenced above have thousands upon thousands of great potent lines. I just picked one from each, but trust me there are tons more where those came from.

But as I read through my example list , I am struck by how profound a story or an emotion these writers are able to evoke with merely a sentence or two.

THAT is where masterful writing occurs. Masterful writing occurs where the writer is able to electically charge the words and embed them with such power that the listener receives a message that is much greater than just a few syllables.

The lyricists I mentioned above are some of my favorites and the reason they are among my favorites is because more often than not their songs possess this aspect. Their songs have extreme word efficiency and therefore word potency and power.

I look back through the lyrics and I'm moved. I'm moved but I am also more amazed than ever by Hemingway's bar bet.

With 6 words Hemingway was able to tell a deeply moving story. That story even out shadows the stories of my heroes which I've listed above.

For fun, you think of some lyrics, or poetry, or prose writing that you feel is potent and uses a high degree of word efficiency and leave them for me in the comments belows. 

I absolutely love discovering new nuggets of linguistic mastery. It gets me excited.

So you have home work: think back to pieces of literature (especially lyrics) and think of lines that say a whole lot with a little. Then send them to me, please. 

Thank you in advance.

And damn...... Hemingway's good. Everybody drink a whiskey in his honor tonight.


  1. The first thing that came to my mind was a line from the Rick Springfield song "What Kind of Fool Am I". The lyrics that stand out to me are:
    I thought we’d be together
    When the world ran down
    When the curtain fell and the lights came up
    But the gods or whatever make the world go round
    Shuffled when they should have cut
    I'm not a card player, but for some reason I absolutely love that he compares life to a deck of cards.

    The other song lyric that has permanent residence in my memory is that of an old Ugli Stick song that I think was written by Brian Graves. It's from Across The Ocean.
    You are an island in your life
    Surrounded by a stagnant sea
    Blown by the winds of repression
    Fueled by hate, fear, and dichotomy
    I love those lyrics! Thanks for the great blog posts, Eric. You are amazing.

    1. Ahhhh you're awesome Nikki.

      That's exactly what I was looking for. Stuff like that.

      I was obviously familiar with The Ugli Stick song. I was however unfamiliar with the other.

      Great lines. And great word efficiency.

      The god line and the cards lines both tell a heap with a little.

      Thank you you are great.