We look for writing inspiration in all sorts of places. Books. Blogs. Writing podcasts. Conversations. Art. Nature. Movies. Music. But most of us don’t look in the very place that language resides.
British writer, designer and illustrator Jez Burrows was looking up the word “study” in the dictionary, and an example sentence caught his attention: “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.”
As he writes in his brilliant, inventive book Dictionary Stories: Short Fictions and Other Findings, “Surrounded by sober trappings of the dictionary, this sentence glowed with all the incongruity of a neon sign in a Renaissance painting. It had such a distinct narrative—it was as if a small piece of fiction had somehow wandered out of its own book and settled down in the dictionary.”
Burrows continued leafing through the dictionary to read more example sentences, which he found to be everything from hilarious to romantic to tragic. Which made him see the dictionary in a new light: “a literary Trojan horse, outwardly presenting itself as a book of reference, while secretly transporting thousands of dismantled short stories.” This sparked a significant question: “Was it possible to put those stories back together?” This led him to find other sentences to add:
“He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery, a study of a man devoured by awareness of his own mediocrity. He looked around the bleak little room in despair. The place was dreadfully untidy.”
This is how Dictionary Stories was born. Burrows turned to other dictionaries in search of stories in example sentences. He used 12 dictionaries for Dictionary Stories, including New Oxford American Dictionary, Dictionary of American Slang, The Home Book of Proverbs, Maxims and Familiar Phrases and Black’s Law Dictionary.
Burrows also established three rules for his stories: 1) some editing was allowed for flow and readability, such as adding or removing punctuation, and adding conjunctions between sentences; 2) edits must constitute less than 5 percent of the story; and 3) edits must leave each sentence as a functioning example of the given word.
Dictionary Stories contains over 100 stories in varying lengths—some just two sentences, others two pages. Below are several stories to spark your writing.
“The English language has over five hundred thousand words, but John didn’t say a word all the way home.”
“The engines stopped, and the craft coasted along. Gulls and cormorants bobbed on the waves. A reverent silence. A memorial to the lost crewmen. Normally, the boat is crewed by five people. Team members are more effective than individuals working alone. I had to do it. I had no choice.”
“Forty years, there or thereabouts, have elapsed. My date isn’t going to show, it seems.”
“’You’ll never amount to anything.’” Her voice was flat and emotionless. They sat looking at each other without speaking. He slapped down a fiver. She considered him coolly for a moment. Madame Eva bent once more over the crystal ball. Her eyes dilated in the dark. She sat back and exhaled deeply. “You’ll get used to it.”
Take a few minutes (or more) to create your own stories from the pages of any dictionary. Make them silly or strange or surprising. Make them beautiful. Make them sad or encouraging. Make them about yourself. Jot them down in your notebook, and remind yourself of the magic and mystery of language, of the fun and play inherent in mixing and matching and manipulating words.
And the next time you’re stuck, whether you’re writing a magazine article, a college essay, or a blog post, turn to these stories. Or open up the dictionary, set a timer for 10 minutes, and start creating another set of stories. Because these books, bursting with words, bursting with narratives, make an amazing, rich, vast source of inspiration for any writer, for any writing.