Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Whole Brevity Thing

For the new year I thought I might have just one resolution. Limiting myself to a single resolution ought to be do'able.

Honestly, the downfall of my resolutions in the past is that I always have too many. I come up with the top ten things I want to change or improve in my life.

Absurd ambition. An overloaded ship of foolish vows. My good intentions sink by February.

But I still faced a problem. If I were to apply myself assiduously in 2011 to only one thing, what should this most condensed and briefest of resolutions be about? That's when it came to me.

My brief resolution could be to embrace brevity.

Of course, it made sense. I'd just spent an entire week at The Van Winkle Project meditating on the three-line news items (called fait-divers) that the Parisian Félix Fénéon wrote in 1906. That experience had served to send a fresh breeze of brevity wafting over me. I was ready to believe in less is more as the new guiding principle of some important area of my life.

The Search for Brevity
As I began to seriously consider brevity as my strongest candidate for a New Year's resolution, I had to narrow down my choices. Where in my life could I strive to be more brief?

I decided to back all the way up and think about the word and its meaning:. Brevity means, well, to be brief. So I went looking for some examples to inspire me.

Let's see. Lawyers write what are called briefs. Unfortunately this proved to be no help. Is anything a lawyer writes actually brief and to the point?

Page 1 of a 70-page "brief" filed in Sept. 2010

In fact, a large container the approximate size of a year-old calf had to be invented so that lawyers would have a way to transport all their not-so-brief briefs. Thus we have the bulging briefcase.

The next thing I thought of was in the world of clothing. There are, of course, men's briefs.

Calling this undergarment brief is somewhat apt when one considers what men wore in the not so distant past:

19th Century men's undies

Still, if we want to talk brief, then we'd be looking at:

Wait. This was a horrible tangent. I wasn't getting anywhere!

Seeking a Synonym
I told our son what I was doing. That I was trying to find an image that would lead me to the best way to be brief in 2011. He immediately turned to a something he learned last year in sixth grade World History class.

"Dad, that would be like being a Spartan wouldn't it? And you can find a picture of a Spartan."

Our son was right about those Greek guys who paraded their pectorals and chucked spears while wearing those cool helmets with face shields. I hadn't thought about them being  brief, just violent and having liberal views on sexual orientation, but now I recalled a further meaning of spartan in the dictionary.

The next step was to search for information on how the Spartans were spare, how being brief contributed to what fearsome, disciplined warriors they were and the militaristic rigor of their society. That's how I learned more about an especially important aspect of Spartan culture, their trademark style of communication. Verbally, the Spartans dined on rations of brevity.

Contrarians, the Spartans rebelled against the style up north of Athens where the philosophers and rhetoricians regaled crowds with their expansive explanations of life. The Spartans were the original cut-to-the-chase guys, the people demanding "Where's the beef?"

We have a name for the sort of speech which models itself after that of the people of the polis of Laconia which was the center of Sparta.

It's called laconic.

In the interest of brevity, here's just one laconic example from the Spartans themselves:

My Own Personal "If"
The Spartans' laconic speech resonated with me. Since I spend a fair portion of each day engaged in communication. I realized that if I could cultivate the laconic, it could save me considerable time. Especially if I applied it to what currently consumes the most hours of my day.


It was so obvious. What I needed to do was pare down my writing to an absolute minimum.

In fact, much of the world has already embraced this mode. Facebook scrawls on the wall, tweets, texts.

In my exploration of blogs I've noticed this, too. Quite a few bloggers' posts consist of a picture and perhaps a caption. Or the blogger will settle for what amounts to a paragraph's worth of discourse. I'm guessing that at the average blog the writing clocks in at less than 500 words per post.

I tend to write posts that are 1000-1500 words long. They take minutes, not a minute to read. (And, side note, they require hours to write and rewrite.)

So there I had it.  I would write shorter posts. I would become Mr. "If", a master of the laconic. I would save time, readers would save time, the world would be a better place.

Or would it? - V.W.

To be continued...


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