Dictionary Stories

Very short stories composed entirely of example sentences from the dictionary.

#3: Chin Up, Guts Out

Remember when I foolishly told you this newsletter would be fortnightly? Simpler times. Luckily, the upshot of my idiot boasting is that you get three months worth of progress neatly compressed into one newsletter, with the correct ratio of killer to filler. So, off to the races →

I. The Book
Good news! After much soul-searching, months of focus group testing, and gallons of ayahuasca consumed in a hollowed-out tree, this book now has both a title and a release date. So take out your diaries, block off the entire month of April 2018, and write in the following: Buy literally dozens of copies of Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings. (Feel free to replace 'dozens' with your own, larger amount, if the mood takes you.) In the mean time, if writing this book were a marathon, this would be the point where my kidneys fail, and I begin to suspect someone has replaced my blood with fire. In other words, there's just over a month to go. All stories and sketches for illustrations need to be wrapped up by the end of June, with final illustrations completed by mid-August. As ever, I can't tell you much more about what's inside, but rest assured this book will contain the stories about babysitting, nitroglycerine, and historical re-enactment that you crave.

II. Process: Guts & Rules
Earlier this month, I posted a new feature-length story called Chin Up to the Dictionary Stories site. For this month's look at the process behind the book, I'm going to show you the guts of that story, sentence by sentence, along with some of the rules I use to keep stories consistent and faithful to the original constraint.  

This story actually owes itself, in part, to a piece of music—a recording made by musician Phil Smith, who tells the story of wandering into a cafe in Berlin on a warm Friday afternoon, and playing the piano inside. The recording has such a wonderful, casual quality to it, thanks in part to Phil's playing, but also to the sounds of life peeking in and out—cafe staff serving customers, traffic, songbirds. I sat listening and wondered if I could capture that scene with found sentences, and this story is the result. I highly recommend reading it in full before continuing, perhaps while listening to Phil's recording (and maybe throwing him a few coins if you feel so inclined).

As late afternoon merged imperceptibly into early evening, a warm September evening, I went for a long walk. A peaceful riverside amble before dark, where the blackwood, the box, and the bastard oak grew. Needed a change of scene.

This first paragraph establishes a few of the conventions I use when writing stories with example sentences. As you might know by now, the underlining indicates the headword responsible for each individual example ('a warm September evening' is the first example given for the adjectival form of 'warm', etc). What you won't be aware of is the significance of colour, which I use to keep track of which dictionary is responsible for each example. Collins English Dictionary is lime green, New Oxford American Dictionary is grey, the Macquarie Dictionary is forest green, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary is purple, and Collins COBUILD Primary Learner's Dictionary is blue. (This story only uses five dictionaries, but I'm using a total of 12 for the final book.) The only outlier is anything in turquoise—turquoise content originates from me as opposed to a dictionary. Often this is just punctuation, but occasionally I'll slip in the odd conjunction or preposition in order to glue sentences together, and to stop stories (otherwise full of short, disconnected, declarative sentences) from sounding like a crappy robot trying to emulate Hemingway.

The murmur of bees in the rhododendrons.
The birds tweeting in the branches.
Planes passed overhead.
A car horn.
A flourish of trumpet.
The scratch of a match lighting a cigarette.
(I have many vices but smoking is the big one. I blame you for that.)

Disconnected sentences can work perfectly well, on occasion. Here they are picking out sounds from this imagined riverside amble, trying to capture some of that lovely natural ambience from Phil's recording. But while ambulatory ambience is all very well and good, I still needed to figure out why my narrator was out wandering in the first place. Maybe it's because I'm British, and therefore naturally prone to melancholy, but when I combed through my database of sentences, I came across an example I had been saving for months—'The weather was terrible, do you remember?'—and found my answer: A wistful sad sack trying to deal with some flavour of heartbreak.

There were echoes and scents that awoke some memory in mewe went for a swim in the river but the water was a touch too chilly for us. The weather was terrible, do you remember? It was raining hard. We took a bus back to the city center, wet clothes dripping onto the floor.

The edits in turquoise at the start of this paragraph are a good example of what the smallest piece of punctuation or a conjunction can do, threading three disparate sentences together into something that sounds a little more natural. If you're lucky, sentences might fit together like perfect puzzle pieces with no edits at all, like the final two sentences above.

Where are you living now? Are you all right? Are you keeping company with anyone special these days? Have you lost your taste for fancy restaurants?
Your problems seem larger than life at that time of night. With a suspicion of a smile, I strolled around, muttering to myself, you’ll be okay, kiddo.

In a past newsletter, I mentioned a few of the categories I group sentences under, one of which was sentences posed in the form of a question—a list I obviously put to good use in the first paragraph above. I wanted each question to tacitly suggest some aspect of the narrator, the person they're addressing, or the nature of their relationship, without revealing too much or resorting to cliche. 'Your problems seem larger than life at that time of night' is another sentence I had been holding on to for months, waiting for the perfect story. Hopefully I found it.

As I've mentioned previously, the final book will be organised alphabetically by theme—you'll find this story will under O for optimism. Maybe I can squeeze in a few neighbours for it before the deadline. 

III. Inspiration: The Oulipo
When I began writing these stories, I realized I would be contributing—in my own small, trifling way—to a long tradition of writers using elaborate constraints to write fiction. I had a vague familiarity with one group of writers particularly notable for this, but beyond their name and their existence I didnt know much, which is what lead me to Daniel Levin Beckers excellent book, Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, a history of the international literary group known as the Oulipo.

The Oulipo and its members are known for pioneering a host of variably sadomasochistic writing constraints, and using them to write novels, short stories, and poetry, perhaps most famously Italo CalvinoIf on a winters night a traveler..., or Georges PerecLa Disparition (translated as A Void, a 300-page novel that doesn't use the letter e). Many Subtle Channels plots the history of the group, but also reads like an abridged memoir, detailing how Levin Becker went from distant admirer to card-carrying Oulipo member. Its miraculously accessible and has become my new go-to recommendation for anyone with even a passing interest in words and language. Some notable constraints:

  • The Prisoner’s Constraint: Passages written without letters that have ascenders or descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y). 
  • The Liberated Prisoner’s Constraint: Passages written only with letters that have ascenders or descenders (including vowels).  
  • N+7: Replace every noun in a passage with the word seven entries after it in the dictionary. (For example, Genesis 1—‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’—becomes ‘In the bench Governor created the help and the economist.’)
  • Snowball: Each successive word in a passage grows or shrinks by one letter. 
  • Abecedary: A work in which every successive line begins with the letters of the alphabet, in order from A–Z. (Eagle-eyed readers may have already noticed a rough approximation of this constraint on the blog: In The Beginninga reworking of Genesis 1 where each sentence is an example of words in alphabetical order.)

Im not suggesting for a moment that Dictionary Stories is a comparable or academically worthy Oulipo descendant, but theres something humbling, instructive, and illuminating about locating your place in history. The idea that I am making even a small contribution to a long line of people playing with words is sustaining me as I push on to the finish line. 

Underlined words are those responsible for each example sentence.