Discovering the Relevance of Words
Literary lore has it that once Ernest Hemingway was asked to write a story using only six words. He wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Think about that for a moment. Think about the story your mind develops from just six, well-chosen words.
As a writer, my Achilles’ heel is being overly verbose, and in the practice of poetry, I am forever trying to follow the adages our creative writing teachers loved to beat us up with… “Show, don’t tell. Less is more.” There is no writer who illustrates this better than Hemingway, whose style was simultaneously powerful and spare. Why use 100 words when ten will do? The more you pile on adjectives, the closer you get to describing something, rather than evoking something.
We ask ourselves how we can make the reader “get” it if we don’t explain it fully, but this is where we get into trouble; the more adjectives we use, the more precision is demanded of the description. When we use fewer words, we have to rely on what the reader can bring to them, which, as writers, feels scary and uncertain. Successful poems, in my opinion, succeed only when the reader is allowed to bring to them whatever meaning they like—with too many words, we are telling the reader what they should feel, rather than letting them use their own power of association to do the work.
I have only been successful in writing decent poems when I’m moved to do so, and when inspiration strikes, I write without worrying about brevity. I write what I feel, and I write fast. After a day or two have gone by, I read what I wrote, and I start my editing by removing any words that seem unnecessary, and certainly any duplicate words. I read it aloud, and if any of the language seems clumsy, I trim that out, too. Examine your poems for articles, determiners, and quantifiers, those little words that precede and modify nouns (the car, a pencil, that person, lots of books)… they are often unnecessary and contribute nothing to overall meaning.
In the same vein, when you submit a poem for workshop with your peers, resist the urge to explain or “introduce” your poem. Just submit it and say nothing. Let the reader do the work.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes, “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence.’”
Begin every day with the practice of writing one true sentence. Take a lesson from Hemingway and make a daily exercise of writing a six-word story—it is surprisingly challenging, and always fun. Discover how much you can say from writing so little.
— Carole Chase