Killing an urban legend (what did Hemingway say?)

In the recent published Lost Signals (Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, edited by Max Booth III and Lori Michelle) and the upcoming Bones Are Made to be Broken (ahem), I have a story called “All That You Leave Behind”, which has the following epigraph:


Illustration by Luke Spooner; design by Max Booth III & Lori Michelle

Note the tag at the end of that quote.  Since I first sent that story in to my editors, I’ve been tagged with the inevitable question, “Wait–didn’t Hemingway say that?” at least six or seven times.

Unfortunately, no–Hemingway didn’t say that.

So we’re all on the same page: According (loosely) to legend, Ernest Hemingway was eating a meal with some other writers.  A bet was thrown down that none of the attending could write the shortest story possible.  Hemingway took his napkin, jotted those famous six words, and collected his winnings from the other participants.

It’s a great story, both the circumstances and the “story” itself.  When I want to convey  to my students the importance of word choice, and the effect good word choice can have, I’ll turn around and quickly write the six words on the board.  No comment, just action.  Then I turn back and wait.

First, there’s confusion–the kids (juniors, usually) are puzzling it out.

Then, around the ten-second mark, you get the first gasp as it clicks home. A few seconds later, another gasp.  Then, a rattle of them.  Eventually, all 20-some students have gotten the point.  Then they all begin talking at once, over each other, reacting to it.

That’s some good goddamn writing.

But Hemingway didn’t write it.

The best distillation of this legend–and the truth behind it–can be found in this article from OpenCulture.  The salient points are: variations of the six-word story can be found in newspaper ads going back to the turn of the 20th century and, when noticed, caught fire.  Hemingway might have been aware of it–he’d worked as a reporter, after all–but the details of the incident I summarized above appear nowhere a literary agent made an anecdote out of it in 1974, then republished it in a writing manual in 1991.

Since then, it’s been referenced by titans of the field and used in either a Broadway show or off-Broadway show (I forget which) about Poppa.

If enough people repeat a legend over and over and over again, does that make it true?

When writing “All That You Leave Behind”–which, oddly enough, is one of my more positive stories–I knew I was going to use the epigraph at the top of the story–something I’d never done before (though, in Bones Are Made to be Broken, I used an epigraph in the title novella, too, and “Behind” follows that immediately).  But, do I attribute it to Hemingway or the “true” (read: unknown) author?  This was something I seriously debated with myself (yes, my day-to-day thoughts are kinda dull).

In the end, it was my own training as a newspaperman that made me go “Unknown Author”.  No one can confirm whether it was Hemingway or not–Snopes lists the urban legend unequivocally as “false”–and so I went with that.

It’s not a stake through an urban legend’s heart, nor that groundbreaking of investigation (do five-second Google searches count?), but there you go.

Oh, and make sure you order Lost Signals (it’s damn good, even discounting my own, ahem, brilliant part) and pre-order Bones Are Made to be Broken (select either “Trade Paperback 2”, “BUNDLE – Paperbacks + eBooks 2”, or “Choose Your Deluxe Edition”…Poppa needs some royalties).


Illustration by Pat R. Steiner, design by Michael Bailey (also, yes, Jack Ketchum blurbed me, as well as a host of other awesome people; that’s a story for another day)


Jacket image by Matthew Revert


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