“Limit your piece to 600 words.” Those were the instructions from my editor, John. I'm glad the instructions were sent via email. That way, John couldn't see me laugh.
600 words? This was my first assignment and I wanted to be impressive, but two things became clear: apparently John thinks I intend to revise the Magna Carta, and he doesn't know me at all. I’m not sure I know 600 words in total.
600 words? Instantly I was taken back to my sophomore year at college. At the urging of my creative writing professor, and with the blessing of my advisor, I enrolled in an honors English course at the University of Missouri.
The entire semester revolved around brevity. The professor would write a passage from some novel or publication on the board, and our assignment was to write what that meant to us, or what the significance of the piece was, in as few words as possible. Paper after paper came back to me covered in red ink scratches and poor grades. I complained bitterly about unfairness and the subjectivity of the grading. The professor, never breaking with his theme, would respond in four words or less.
“There’s the door” and “you can always drop” were two of his standard replies. My personal favorite was, “write better frat boy!” This continued until after a particularly harsh critique and poor grade, I summoned the courage, approached his desk, and calmly stated “they’ll never find your body.” While technically six words, and a potential felony, he saw fit to change my grade to a ‘C.’
600 words? Honors English was good training. I started dating my wife in high school, followed her to college and she relented to marry me shortly after Mizzou invited me to never come back. This year will mark our 20th of wedded bliss. (Side note: bliss is Latin meaning they haven't called the cops yet.)
With a series of hand gestures, grunts and clicks I know that our son gets home from school at 4, my wife has a hair appointment until 5:3, and to please thaw out the chicken for dinner. Later, if I notice an almost imperceptible head nod, narrowing of the eyes and a slight furrow of the brow, I know that she has cordoned off a 2-meter no fly zone around her person, and not even George Clooney with a $1 million check will be invading that airspace tonight. Not one word need be spoken. In fact, we haven't said 600 words to each other since 2003.
600 words? Great deeds of historical significance have been accomplished without the need to be that loquacious. In the 17th century, the Dutch purchased present-day Manhattan Island from the Lenape Indians. The original purchase contract states the Dutch got all 22,000 acres for two baskets of rye, a bottle of rum, four shiny beads and the feather boa from the ship captain’s hat. In the footnotes, it indicated all the Western European diseases the natives were sure to contract were to be free of charge. 600 words, please. That took less than 30.
600 words? Mark Twain once said, “Few sinners are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.” Of course, Shakespeare wrote, “brevity is the soul of wit.” Both of those guys did alright. I think, anyway. After honors English, I had a newfound ability to tell my advisor, and anyone else with a class suggestion, exactly where they could go in four words or less. I never saw the English building again.
And in case you’re wondering, 599 words. Boom!