On the Mirror and the Echo

See all News Why Flash Fiction Series
story art

In SmokeLong‘s “Why Flash Fiction?” series, writers and editors explore what draws them to the form. In this column, Carmen Maria Machado analyzes the famous six-word story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Submit your own “Why Flash Fiction?” article or other flash-related essays on our Submittable page

 

By Carmen Maria Machado

Whenever I teach a class or unit on flash fiction, I always begin the same way: encouraging my students to dismantle one of the most famous tiny stories in the English language:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

I know, I know, I can hear your eyes rolling. For most folks, even non-readers, this little story became a cliché a long time ago. It doesn’t even have a proper title, just a multi-segmented body, like a centipede or string of pearls: for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn. The story was, allegedly, written by Hemingway (also, allegedly, to win a bet?), but that’s all apocryphal. No one knows for sure.

When I write for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn on the board, there is always a collective groan of recognition from the class. Then I ask: how many characters are in this story? They usually stare at me for a moment, but once I say “Well, there has to be a mother, yes?” the answers start rolling out.

Depending on the group’s enthusiasm and imagination, the list of characters varies, but usually we end up with something like this:

  • A biological mother
  • A biological father
  • A baby, maybe
  • The person who placed the ad
  • The reader of the ad

Granted, some of these are stretches, and some of them could overlap, and there are certainly more inventive choices missing, but this list is a fast way into various interpretations of the events of the story, and can lead us down wildly divergent paths of understanding.

For-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn can be a tragedy: A baby is dead and the family is selling off the infant accouterments. Or, it can be a comedy, a tall tale: A baby was born with amusingly large feet, and the shoes are unneeded. (A1924 Omaha newspaper once speculated on the potential narratives behind a similar, real-life advertisement that had run in the paper, about a baby carriage: “Why was the baby carriage never used? Is the little fellow waiting by himself until the Heavens be no more, or were mother and child buried in the same grave? Or did some old bachelor win the baby carriage at a raffle?”)

This exercise can go on for a while. A man buys his pregnant girlfriend baby shoes, and then discovers she’s had a miscarriage. An adolescent attempts to sell off his unwanted younger sibling’s gifts, piece by piece. Well-to-do parents realize that their offspring has way more clothing than is necessary, and tries to spread the goodwill around. An on-the-outs n’er-do-well tries to sell off a box of junk he stole from someone’s garage. A teenage girl discovers she’s pregnant, buys baby clothes in a fit of sorrow, and then has an abortion. A couple prepares for their adopted child to come home from a foreign country, and then learns that bureaucracy is standing in the way of the process. A woman undergoing fertility treatments buys the shoes on a whim, and after the treatments fail, decides to get them out of her house. And this doesn’t even touch on the potentially infinite non-realist readings of this story[1].

How you interpret the events of for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn might depend on many factors, all of which have to do with you, the reader. Are you melancholy, or relentlessly optimistic? Do you enjoy irreverent playfulness, or are you a serious character? What genres of literature do you gravitate toward? Have you heard for-sale-baby-shoes-never-worn before, or was this the first time? Have you ever worked for the classified section of a newspaper? Are you young enough that you’ve never seen the classified section of a newspaper? Are you thinking practically about how much money someone might make from the sale of baby shoes, and how an ad in a paper would be more expensive than any recouped costs?

Maybe, most importantly: Have you ever lost a child? And if so, how?

I teach this little story because it’s a quick way to demonstrate one of my favorite properties of flash: its ability to reflect back on the reader. All good fiction has some level of flexibility: open to shades of interpretation. But the shorter the piece—the more spare the details—the more you, the reader, are required to rush in to fill the space.

In her essay “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer talks about the function of “flatness” in the traditional fairy tale. “[Fairy tale characters] are not given many emotions,” she writes, “and they are not in psychological conflict.” Why does this technique work? Bernheimer posits:

This absence of depth, this flatness, violates a technical rule writers are often taught in beginning writing classes: that a character’s psychological depth is crucial to a story. In a fairy tale, however, this flatness functions beautifully; it allows depth of response in the reader.

Flash fiction borrows from this idea. It is, by definition, short; it leaves things out, it relies on inference. It doesn’t necessarily have psychological flatness, per se—though it can look like that, sometimes, depending on the story—but possesses missing details (the right missing details) and flatness (the right kind of flatness) that creates a vacuum that begs to be filled.

And who is on hand to fill it? A reader, an entire complex ecosystem of experiences and opinions and preferences and instincts, with a profound desire to have the thing in front of her make sense.

*

One of my favorite short-short shorts is Amy Hempel’s one-sentence “Housewife.”

She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, “French film, French film.”

When I first read it, I was a wee thing, in college. I marveled at this little jewel of a story, how much was folded up inside those words, inside that one sentence[2]. “She’s cheating on her husband,” I thought of the protagonist of “Housewife,” “and she’s excusing it by romanticizing her life like it’s a French film.”

But years later—seasoned with experience and after a stint of relationships, good and bad—I revisit it again, and my reading has changed. Suddenly, I slide between wondering if she is referring to infidelity or polyamory or something darker and less consensual. I wonder if she incants “French film, French film” to concede to the tropes of the genre, or to convince herself that she is happy or cosmopolitan or right or safe. I notice the word “exploit,” which pulses like a wound, and the passive voice of “whatever was left to her.” I also notice, ten years later, that the story incants the word “day” three times—a full seven percent of its length (only the word “the” is used more)—as if convincing itself of something, too.

So now, a decade after my first encounter, I see that “Housewife” contains new and different truths, and even more mysteries. But it hasn’t changed—I have.

*

I arrive now at the part of the essay where I have to find a neat, useful, and poignant image, a helpful metaphor for flash fiction, like: it is an iceberg[3] or ice melting on a hot stove[4] or a single raindrop that “engulfs its own blue pearl of light[5]” or the world in a grain of sand[6].

So what of this quality that I am so obsessed with? What is it like, in a way that you (the reader) will carry with you long after my name, and the specifics of this essay, have vanished from your mind?

It is not a mirror. I know the word “mirror” is in the title of this piece, but that’s because it’s an image I considered and discarded. A functional mirror returns to the viewer what is put before it with reflexive faithfulness, and no good piece of flash—hell, no good piece of art—can say the same.

An echo, then. Language hollered into a canyon. The story is the space, the crevices and hollows and peaks, and the reader is the caller at the end of a long walk, and their voice always returns to them altered.

[1]A student once said “The fairy who stole the baby and left the changeling child in its place!” which delighted me. I’ve also entertained plots about alien abductions, ghosts, wormholes, parallel universes, and infant-eating cribs, all of which introduce a unique cast of characters to the exercise.

[2] She once told an interviewer at The Atlantic that she she’d first written it and thought, “Oh, this is the first line of a story, and two and a half years later I’m like, Nope, that is the story.”

[3] This is actually Hemingway.

[4] And this, Joyce Carol Oates echoing Robert Frost.

[5] Stuart Dybek!

[6] Good ol’ William Blake.

Photo1ColorCarmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy, Best Horror of the Year, and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.