The 750 Project: Opening Lines, Punches, and the Poetry of Short-Form Prose
September 14, 2017 § 5 Comments
Guest Editor Shane Borrowman’s introduces The <750> Project, wherein he asks past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it:
I begin things badly. First lines come to me both slowly and unnaturally, and I admire most those writers whose talents lead them to strong opening lines:
Norman Maclean’s “The day I was born, as I was to be often told, my father gave me a dog for a birthday present. Very early in life, then, I was to learn about the power of odd coincidence, because my dog turned out to be a duck dog and my father turned out to be a duck hunter and evidently, at least in my infancy, I did not resemble a duck and the dog did not give a damn about me” (“Retrievers Good and Bad”).
Caroline Knapp’s “It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out” in the prologue to Drinking: A Love Story, and Joelle Fraser’s “I wake up in December and I’m twenty-six and married and living in Spokane, a city that spreads over the dry prairies of eastern Washington like a slow burn” (“The Dive Bar Tours,” perhaps the finest braided essay in the memoir The Territory of Men).
All memorable, powerful lines that set memorable, powerful stories in motion.
Because I begin badly, I gravitated toward the short form naturally and early in my writing career. In 750 words, there’s not room for a weak first line. The whole thing has to get rolling immediately, or it’s not going anywhere. Like a punch, the short form has to fly with strength, straight from the shoulder, straight from the start, or it won’t have any effect when it lands.
The <750> Project began in the summer of 2016, and the idea hit me like a whistling roundhouse, probably one thrown by a lefty, since I don’t seem to have ever learned to effectively block my right side. It started as I was driving between Twin Bridges and Dillon, singing along with The Gaslight Anthem and thinking about my great grandfather’s prison record. I’d written about him in Brevity and had shared the essay with students many times, sometimes talking to them about how I’d write the essay, “Icky Papa Died,” differently, if I had the chance. I began to think concretely about what I’d write if I took that essay and made it longer. Or shorter.
And the idea for The <750> Project hit. Hit so hard I’m surprised it didn’t leave a mark.
I turned down the music. Woke up my wife. Asked her to write a few notes so the idea wouldn’t escape. As soon as I got near a computer, I emailed Dinty. He emailed back. We kicked the idea around, did some fine tuning as we worked through other projects and their attendant deadlines, finally landed in September of 2017.
We invited four Brevity authors to return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it. No one turned us down. No one asked why such modification mattered, and we gave no directions beyond our word-length request. This willingness to dive headlong into such a nebulously-defined task only confirmed the fact I’d suspected, along with thousands of other readers and writers, since 1997: Brevity writers are awesome.
Ann Claycomb returned to her essay “WQED, Channel 13: Programming Guide,” from Brevity 31, with the task of making the work shorter, while Steven Church took “Lag Time,” Brevity 33, and built 411 words to 806.
William Bradley trimmed “Julio at Large” (Brevity 32), as Emily Franklin’s “Semi-Significant Moments in Googleland; Results of My Top Three Searches” (Brevity 18) expanded from just over 500 words to north of 1000.
And as these writers returned to their work with an eye towards adding or subtracting, they also reflected on their situation, on their process for revision and the rationale for their inclusions and deletions in what were already fully-formed, fully-functional, fully-successful essays.
These four authors have walked a line simultaneously fine and fuzzy as they embarked on The <750> Project, retaining the stories they shared in Brevity‘s pages without losing the poetry and power as the work either stretched or contracted. It’s no easy task to return to something originally built short and to make it shorter or longer.
I know. I tried.
Shane Borrowman is a professor of English at the University of Montana Western, where he teaches classes in nonfiction, the history of technology, and zombie cinema/literature/gaming. He is author, editor, or co-editor of eleven books, including Mistakes Were Made: Reflections on Being a Mediocre Father, Trauma and the Teaching of Writing, Authenticity, and Rhetoric in the Rest of the West. His current writing focuses on the intersection of family, memory, and the collapse of copper mining/smelting in southwest Montana