The Anecdote VS. The Story

April 30, 2008
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THE ANECDOTE VS. THE STORY

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
May 2008

 

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. 
            “Your ticket,” she demands.
            I show her my stub.
            “It can’t be,” she says. “There are no vacant seats in business class.” (I had to pay twenty bucks extra for business class because coach was all sold out.)
            “That’s because I already am seated. Here’s my stuff,” I say, showing her my little suitcase resting on the floor.
            “Well, honey, (her honey sounds like carbolic acid) “it says here that one of the passengers is headed for Poughkeepsie, the other New York City.”
            “That’s me, New York Rochelle,” I say, and draw my latest copy of The New Yorker out of my bag.
            “But business class is all filled,” she insists, her hat rising higher.
            “My seatmate could swear for me,” I say. He’s fast asleep, his head against the window. “But don’t wake him,” I plead.
            “Honey, I’m going to have to put you off the train,” she says.
Still, trembling, I beg her not to wake him.

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. "

 

 

—Shapiro

But is it a story?
Not yet.
 
A story must be developed, having a clear beginning, middle, and end. There has to be some revelation, an aha moment, where the character is pressed to the wall and then grows and changes, hopefully for the better.

 

Here are the possibilities to turn this into a story:

"A flashback is what happens before the action of the story begins. "

 

 

—Shapiro

Flashbacks that explain the psychological complexity of the character. A flashback is what happens before the action of the story begins.
 
For example, in the scene where I’m urging the conductor not to wake my seatmate, an older man with a buzz saw snore, I might become a child again, tip-toeing through our railroad-style apartment, trying not to disturb my father. My father, who wakes at 3:30 a.m. for work and comes home after dark to eat dinner with, his head drooping over his plate, the bridge on his front teeth slipping. You want to giggle with your sisters, but if you wake him suddenly, he may smash his fist on the table and make the dishes dance. Gently, my mother wakes him and he goes in the living room to watch TV, his swollen feet soaking in a basin of Epsom Salts. Again his head nods forward and his eyelids curtain his blue eyes. You know that if you make a peep his eyes will snap open and before he realizes it’s you and not a Cossack sneaking up on him with a saber, his big fist will flash out at you.
 
And when you cry, your mother says, “You know better than to wake your father.”

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. "
—Shapiro

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.
“She’s been sitting here since Schenectady,” he’d said. And I, still trembling from the bully conductor, sat down and remained quiet until the train pulled into Penn Station.  

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.

 

About

 

 

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/
 

 

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