Recently I was given an example of the adage, “Less is more. ” One of my memoir writing students, whose parents had been Holocaust survivors, was describing the way they discovered that the family left behind in Germany had been killed. This was something she could have taken countless pages to write, but she chose to do it in just six words: Letters stopped coming. Then we knew.
How much tragedy is conveyed in those brief commonplace words, rather than diluting the impact with decorative adjectives. It’s similar to a line in the Bible that I’ve always admired, about Jacob’s overwhelming grief when his beloved wife Rachel died. No “tears streamed down his cheeks” or breast-beating language, but the simple: Jacob wept.
How much each of us might communicate in a few words, whether we’re writing or talking, rather than rambling on and on. I’m not dismissing the power of lengthy novels in genius hands (Proust is safe!) Yet, as I often find in my own work, a story may improve surprisingly when it’s stripped to essentials.
No less an authority than Ernest Hemingway agreed. Legend has it that he wagered he could write a complete story in just six words. He won his bet with the terse: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.
(I can’t resist adding a more acidic example by Canadian author Margaret Atwood: Longed for him. Got him. Shit.)
Compared to such compression, being assigned 20 words seems expansive. That was the challenge given the brilliant writer and translator, Lydia Davis. After what she admitted was considerable revising she came up with:
I am happy the leaves are growing large so quickly. Soon they will hide the neighbor and her screaming child.
An intriguing scene in what was literally a very small space – for the assignment was for the label on a mouthwash bottle!
Since brevity is the soul of whatever, I’ll end here. (10 words)
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Books: ROLE PLAY and TEN WOMEN OF VALOR – Available at CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com. Also Amazon Kindle.
WIDOW’S WALK – iUniverse.com
TURNING TOWARD TOMORROW- Xlibris.com