“Though Teddy Roosevelt’s life was spared when an assassin’s bullet was slowed by the 50-page speech tucked inside his vest pocket, 500 words saw Moses through the creation. As a writer, I harken to the Mosaic example and, in this, I am assisted by my mother tongue: English by every test that I have applied is the most economical of the world’s major languages. Thumb through the Hexaglot Bible next time you’re in the library and, of the six languages represented there, the English column is invariably the shortest.”—Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
“[Concision] is almost a condition of being inspired.”—George Santayana
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—12/1/2014—Though Teddy Roosevelt’s life was spared when an assassin’s bullet was slowed by the 50-page speech tucked inside his vest pocket, 500 words saw Moses through the creation.
As a writer, I harken to the Mosaic example and, in this, I am assisted by my mother tongue: English by every test that I have applied is the most economical of the world’s major languages. Thumb through the Hexaglot Bible next time you’re in the library and, of the six languages represented there, the English column is invariably the shortest.
My respect for linguistic economy, however, originated with Professor Ruth Faulk’s bleeding pen. It was she who swore like Attila that “every slaughtered syllable is a good deed.” Once she ordered a thousand-word essay and returned it a few days later with instructions to write it again in 500. Channeling Emily Dickinson and Ernest Hemingway, she convinced me that the best writing is a hardwood, stripped of its bark, sawn, planed, and dried in the sun.
Another mentor of mine, Professor James Dickey, urged his “nest of singing birds” to write reams of heroic couplets “ere venturing anything longer.” I was pleased that he liked my curtal couplet: “Round Robin Hood’s barn / makes a tedious yarn.”
Not just brief, he said, but concise.
After flying from Dickey’s nest, and inspired by the flash-fiction revival of the 1990s, I started collecting examples of what I broadly call “nano lit”: prodigies of written or spoken concision. Here’s an example of each flash genre I’ve contrived:
- Flash oratory: “The Gettysburg Address,” At 272 words, Abraham Lincoln’s speech is still the best a human has spoken in English. The orator who preceded Lincoln spoke for two hours, and no one today recalls a word of what he said.
- Flash non-fiction: “E=MC2,” Albert Einstein
- Flash war communiqué: “Sighted sub, sank same.” Donald F. Mason
- Flash telegram: “Stop.” Anon.
- Flash film review: “I’m a Camera”: “No Leica.” Goodman Ace
- Flash poem: Edmund Conti’s “Potholes”: A void.
- Flash suicide note: “My work is done. Why wait?” George Eastman
- Flash koan: “Wherever you go, there you are.” Anon.
- Flash Oscar speech: “Thank you.” Wm. Holden
- Flash sermon: “Be kind.” Anon.
- Flash recipe: “Moose stew: Shoot one moose.” Anon.
- Flash tweet: “tl; dr.” [“Too long; didn’t read.”] Anon.
- Flash paraphrase: New Testament: “He was born. He lived. He died. He’s coming back. He’s not going to be happy.” Anon.
- Flash monologue: “‘Shut up,’ [Daddy] explained.” Ring Lardner
- Flash professional fiction: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Ernest Hemingway
- Flash ballet instructions: “1. Don’t fall. 2. Get up.” Alexander Pushkin
- Flash homework: Write a short story with these elements: religion, royalty, sex, mystery. Sample “A+” story: “My God,” said the queen. “I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it.” Anon.
- Flash corporate slogan: “Think.” IBM
- Flash SAT Essay: “You ask if tradition and progress ever conflict. Yes, tradition and progress sometimes conflict.” Anon. Despite its admirable brevity, it was graded “F.”
- Flash crime novel: “Bang!” Anon.
- Flash admonition: “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” Steven Wright
- Flash resignation: “Dear Sir: I quit.” Anon.
- Flash marriage acceptance speech: “You had me at ‘Hello.’” Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire
- Flash ad: “For sale, parachute, used once.” Anon.
- Flash bench judgment: Replying to a delinquent taxpayer who said, “As God is my judge, I do not owe this tax,” Judge Howard Dawson said, “He isn’t. I am. You do.”
- Flash conclusion: “Etc.” Anon.
- Flash architectural dogma: “Less is more.” Mies van der Rohe
- Flash rebuttal: “Less is a bore.” Robert Venturi
- Flash will: “All to wife.” Karl Tausch scrawled this on the wall beside his death bed. Compare this will to Frederica E. S. Cook’s, which ran 1,066 pages bound in four volumes.
- Flash obit: “De Sade, Donatien Alphonse. French soldier, pervert.” Anon.
- Flash last words: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Gen. John Sedgwick
- Flash epitaph: “I should have been cremated.” Anon.
Albert Einstein once urged an audience to make everything as simple as possible but not simpler. I learned the wisdom of that observation when I, as head of the English Humanities section, emailed my department head, “Would there be any objection if [name of an untenured lecturer deleted] teaches a 300-level humanities class next semester?”
The head replied, “No way!”
I replied, “No way that you have an objection, or no way that she’ll teach a 300-level course?”
He replied, “No objection.”
Clearly, the department head had oversimplified this issue to the point of obfuscation and nearly to the point of libel.
Not long after this exchange, a student brought a “D” paper to my office asking how he could raise his grade. Without rereading it, I took one look at his emaciated paragraphs and suggested a robust regimen for the development of his ideas.
“So, you want me to wordy it up, professor?”
“No, of course not,” I said and explained that while his “riprap rocks” was “wordied up,” I was aiming for something more refined. I then told him how Ezra Pound had reduced his poem of 30 lines to two and, in doing so, had given birth to Imagism. I told him I didn’t expect anything that grand and showed him how a colleague had cut five pages from the university’s faculty manual by substituting “Provost” for “Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.”
I’ll close with a flash anecdote which attempts to negotiate the fine line between too much information and too little. It’s closer to what I was hoping my students would produce in the narrative assignment I’d given them.
“Heirs to the Mt. Olive pickle fortune, Dean Morris Cox and his wife, Irene, lived many years on a boggy acre with a stream meandering through their front yard. Both were long-time wildflower enthusiasts, living as they were on the banks of a small Lake Hartwell tributary. So when Lake Jocassee in the mountains to the north began rising toward “full pond,” and a friend whose property was scheduled to be inundated invited the dean to transplant a few Oconee Bells, Morris leapt at the opportunity to assist an endangered species.
After several hours of digging and hauling the plants to the trunk of his Rolls-Royce, he headed home in muddy clothes and boots. On the way back to Clemson, he stopped in a country grocery to buy a soft drink and a pack of peanuts. As he waited to pay, the customer in front of him dropped a dime. Always the gentleman, Morris picked it up and offered it to its rightful owner. After giving his deanship a quick assessment, the customer said, ‘Keep it—you look like you need it more than I do.’
So Morris quietly pocketed the coin, paid for his purchases, and went back to his Rolls. As he was preparing to leave, the careless customer tapped on the driver’s-side window. While Morris was still rolling it down, the man stuck his nose inside and said, ‘I want my dime back.’”