Anecdotes don’t make good stories. Generally I dig down underneath them so far that the story that finally comes out is not what people thought their anecdotes were about.
– Alice Munro
I’m starting to pull together my article on autobiography and memoir for Thursday and I came across this quote from Alice Munro. At first glance, I thought it seemed a little bit of a mean thing to say, especially considering that so many authors base their work in anecdotes, but the more I think about it, the more it begins to make sense. Don’t be mad! Let me explain.
In one of my first creative writing classes at university, our lecturer gave us a definitive list of things he did not want to see us handing in. That included erotica (unless you were taking the specialist class), fan fiction and “that story about the time you went out with your mates and got really drunk”… in other words, anecdotes. But sure enough, it was only a couple of months until someone handed in that exact story. It was pretty tedious, to say the least, but somewhere between the bit about him chugging his eighth pint and the description of the “fit bird” he would later go home with, there was just a sentence or two of potential. He mentioned that the girl looked just like a friend he had known many years ago, who had run away to London to pursue her acting career, never to be seen again.
Someone much more attentive than me asked him to tell us more about this mysterious character. It took a fair bit of nagging to drag him away from his original story but he eventually came around and agreed to use that memory as a prompt for his next submission. I’m relieved to tell you that the story that came of it was far more interesting than his last. In fact, it was one of the best we had read that year. Of course, it was mostly fiction, just inspired by a small scrap of an anecdote, but in the end, that worked out much better. Real life and fiction don’t always work well together. Being truthful about your anecdotes when you’re just telling them to your friends is a good policy, but when you write them into a story, you may sometimes have to opt for the “grain of truth” method. Even some autobiographies do this – it’s what you would call autobiographical fiction, and it’s a very popular genre. So, unless you are giving a police statement, don’t be afraid to take some artistic licence with your writing.
By the way, it isn’t lost on me that this post about not writing anecdotes is itself an anecdote. Question is, how much of it was true?