Inspiration strikes from the most accidental places. For designer and illustrator Jez Burrows, it came from the dictionary. Looking up the definition of a word one day, Burrows stumbled upon the word "study" and the curiously charming example demonstrating how to use it in a sentence.
"The sentence read: 'He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery,' " he told It's Nice That. "The language of dictionary definitions is all very plain and functional, so seeing this incredibly heavy and evocative sentence in amongst it all really struck me and seemed like the beginning of a short story."
Thus "The Dictionary Stories" was born, a project that compiles example sentences from the dictionary to create short but arresting stories — like this one, 'Noir,' Burrows' personal favorite.
"Almost every word you'll find in the dictionary is accompanied by an example sentence," Burrows detailed in the site's information page.
"These sentences — either written or sourced by fearless lexicographers — are intended to demonstrate the most probable usage of a word, in order to help you use it correctly. All the stories collected here are written entirely using example sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary, with nothing added except some punctuation to piece them together. The words that spawned each sentence are underlined." (The underlined versions are available on the website.)
How does he do it?
Burrows told A Plus in an email that his process is mostly random. "Usually I'll just come across one specific sentence (or a group of sentences) that will suggest a story or a concept and I'll go from there," he noted. "I sometimes have vague plans for stories ... but so far all my favorite stories have come about completely serendipitously."
In fact, Burrows is so engrossed in his project that he has begun a collection of these sentences.
"I have an enormous text file of hundreds of sentences that I think might go somewhere," he told It's Nice That. "I love seeing sentences which I swear can't be used, then finding another that unlocks the potential for narrative. Although I'm not so sure I'll ever be able to use 'The country is heavily dependent on banana exports.' "
The Dictionary Stories has received notable media attention, but Burrows hardly expected that. "This project has shown me that I am terrible at anticipating what projects people will respond to," he wrote to A Plus.
"I like to think that they're compelling in the way that any sort of collage is, be it visual, musical, or textual — it's fun watching this tightrope walk of building something cohesive out of lots of disparate parts. One of my favorite bands ever, The Books (now sadly defunct), did exactly this — build songs out of found sound and dialogue — if I can even approximate how incredible some of their work was, I'll be happy."
Read more of his remarkable stories here:
And, our favorite:
Cover image via iStock/alga38