THE ANECDOTE VS. THE STORY
by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
So I step off the train from Schenectady to New York at Albany for a twenty minute layover while they change the engine. When I step back onto the train, a conductor collars me. Her wild hair makes her cap rise up, a crest on a scrubby mountain.
Okay, that’s just an anecdote, a short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often autobiographical. We call our friends everyday to tell them anecdotes. That was why I’d stepped off the train in Albany, to call my friend, Marlene and tell her about the guy who had ordered nachos and cheese in the dining car and didn’t pay the tab. “When I get off in Albany, I’ll use the ATM,” he’d promised, and all he did was smoke on the platform. I was fascinated by this Nacho Dead Beat who, instead of getting the money to pay his dining car tab, was hustling some guy into buying him a ham and cheese sandwich on the train. Why hadn’t the conductor collared him instead of me?)
"A story must be developed, having a clear beginning, middle, and end. "|
But is it a story?
Here are the possibilities to turn this into a story:
"A flashback is what happens before the action of the story begins. "|
Flashbacks that explain the psychological complexity of the character. A flashback is what happens before the action of the story begins.
And when the story returns to present action after that aha moment, the protagonist, me, notices the Dead Beat Nacho guy being treated to dinner. Even though he hasn’t paid his debt, the crew is more civil to him than me. I drum up the courage to urge the conductor to wake her seatmate. No longer trembling, I insist that the conductor wakes my seatmate and he says, “Yeah, she’s next to me.”
Perhaps, to further show the change that has come over me, I might say to the conductor, “I told you so, Honey.”
Here is how to prevent the anecdote from becoming a story:
"…if you're meant to write, you won't be able to stop. "|
Not allowing the protagonist to become the agent of change keeps the anecdote just an anecdote. The main character has to be the one who takes new action, not having it foisted on him the way it was on me. Actually, as the conductor argued with me, my seatmate woke up.
You can tell if you’re a born writer when you notice the amusing clips of life and are able to put them together into a story. In fact, if you’re meant to write, you won’t be able to stop.
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/ or at her blog: http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/