The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘cliché’ as “a stereotyped expression, a hackneyed phrase or opinion; a stereotyped character, style, etc.” Beginning an article with a dictionary definition has to be one of the worst examples of literary cliché, but perhaps the scores of writers who use this device are simply looking in the wrong place. Jez Burrows, too, quotes from the dictionary. In fact, he does so to such an extent that an entire piece will contain nothing but dictionary entries. But unlike the definitions so often reached for by writers looking for linguistic precision and sufferers of writer’s block looking for an easy opening for an article, Burrows looks at that other aspect of any good dictionary: the examples.
In a situation that will be familiar to all but the most grim and numerical students of science, Burrows found himself looking up a few words in a dictionary and was struck by the example usage of the word ‘study:’ “he perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” This sentence struck Burrows as unexpectedly melodramatic next to the more functional language of the definition of the word; “like a piece of fiction had gotten lost and wound up in a dictionary,” he says. Few dictionaries, of course, make up their own examples, and the vast majority are indeed drawn from fiction. Rather than trace the sentence back to its author, however, Burrows decided to go forward: “I decided to start looking for more interesting examples and eventually challenged myself to write a complete story with them.”
That story would later become Hunter, a story of ten sentences and 13 dictionary entries which somehow manages to pack in tragedy, mystery and explosions, with a healthy dose of melodrama for good measure. With the first one done, Burrows created a Tumblr page, then an Instagram account, then a small booklet. He has no plans to stop there, either, claiming he’ll continue writing “until it’s not fun anymore.”
As the media have developed, so has the range of his stories. Many are dark, like Noir, which features a murder and setting so grim as to befit the name. Divorcee marries poetic brevity with gloomy humour and metafiction, reading, “I’ll look up love in the dictionary: ‘A titanic tower of garbage’.” His recent stories break new ground, including everything from song playlists (which have actually been made into song playlists by enthusiastic fans) to recipes calling for “gallons of fake blood” to a distinctly free interpretation of the plot of Hamlet which includes car chases, a “$10 million insurance swindle” and a deal with the board of directors over a new robot design. In most stories absurdist humour abounds, almost certainly stemming from the nature of their creation, one disconnected example at a time.
If his Tumblr is happy to deal with greater development (within reason — few are more than 250 words long) and plumb deeper depths of lexicographical fiction, the Instagram arm of Burrows’ operation is shorter still, often dealing with only two or three examples strung together to create vignettes, rather than stories. Like their big brothers, however, they run the gamut of tone, from “Can I call you back? I’m naked except for my socks.” to the far darker “The well was black as night. The sergeant ordered the troops to fall in.” All the same, Burrows is the first to admit that his stories tend feature a lot of murder, “but that’s mostly accidental. Mostly.”
Such violence isn’t immediately apparent in Burrows’ other work as a graphic designer. An Englishman by birth, he studied at the University of Brighton and, after a few years working in Edinburgh, was offered a job at Facebook and moved to San Francisco in 2011, where he lives currently. Design is certainly where Burrows feels most comfortable: even Dictionary Stories are occasionally found with illustrations. Nevertheless, the practice of writing fiction within such strict constraints have helped him move from the visual to the textual. Having struggled to write his own fiction in the past, he calls the “constraint” of this medium a tool to make writing “more of a puzzle or creative prompt, and consequently more approachable.”
That is not to say writing the stories is easy: rather, “it’s all in the luck of the draw.” Sometimes, (one can imagine Burrows tearing maniacally through an enormous tome, scribbling sentences left and right in a fit of lexicographical fury) one might be completed in a single afternoon, but others have been known to lie dormant for weeks on end, waiting for the last sentence or two to solve the puzzle and complete the story.
If nothing else, the varying change of pace means that Burrows shows no signs of stopping any time soon. While his readers and his creativity have gained much in reading and creating respectively, perhaps still to come is a boost to his vocabulary: “No noticeable change in size yet,” he says, “though I certainly own a lot more dictionaries.”