Anecdotal Evidence

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A relaxed raconteur.

I really don't want to know who you voted for in the last election. I don't care how many in-house awards you've won at your prestigious job. Or how many your children have won. I particularly don't want to know your opinion about what's on television, or the latest fad book series. Don't even start on whether you think there's a God - or whether you suspect he might not like your neighbours very much.

Tell me a story.

If I listen to your story, I'll know who you voted for in the last election. I'll have a good guess as to what kinds of things you do when I'm not around. I might even be able to tell if you watch reality tv, and what your theology is.

There are too many opinions in this world, and not enough storytellers. This makes the stories cry - they want to be let out of limbo.

Don't Lie...Much

There are libraries out there on how to write. Forget it. Learn to tell an anecdote. You may not win the Nobel Prize for Highfaluting Opinionating, but you'll win an audience.

Rule one: Don't lie. There are clubs for people like that1. Oh, it's okay to change a factoid here and there - if the story's funnier if the woman is blonde, or the guy is taller than average, go for it. But leave the essential truth in there, or you sin against yourself and your audience. If we want cheap fiction, we'll watch reruns.

It's a good idea to truncate the back story. That's usually where the fibs come in. For instance, if I want to tell the following story, I need to

  • change a name to avoid a possible lawsuit2
  • leave out a lot of unnecessary detail

Professor Hasenpfeffer, an otherwise charming and popular professor of German, was noted in the department for his name-dropping ways. An accomplished raconteur, he caused graduate students to bite their tongues in class and discuss the points of his anecdotes in private.

This was back in the Sixties, when most people thought Hermann Hesse was some sort of hippie guru, rather than the staid old German he really was. Professor Hasenpfeffer knew him, of course - he knew everybody - and had once told Hesse, 'Hermann, you'll see - one day the world will appreciate your work.'

The gloss, of course, was obvious to the graduate students: Speaking in German, the Professor had used the familiar pronoun. He didn't want to share an insight into a great writer - he wanted us to know that he was on a first-name basis with greatness.

Which Brings Us to Self-Aggrandisement

If the point of an anecdote is how

  • rich
  • famous
  • generally superior

you are - save it for your memoirs. You can sell these when you are really

  • rich
  • famous
  • generally superior

and some fool will pay for the privilege of reading them. Your heirs will appreciate this, and spend the money on flat-screen tvs.

Concentrate on getting the story right rather than looking good. If the story is funny, enlightening, scary...we'll forgive you if you spent most of it in your BVDs.

Last year we rented a cabin in the Great Smokies for a week. We were looking forward to solitude and isolation. Just how much isolation you could get fifteen minutes outside Bryson City was something we were about to find out.

Never mind that I was fool enough to get stuck on the way to the cabin. How was I to know the road to the cabin was the unpaved road, and that the paved 'road' was a private driveway? How was I to know that trying to back out of that man's driveway would lead to my wussie little Kia Sportage being sunk in a bed of old leaves and loose dirt? And was I grateful for the country courtesy of a stranger with a big ol' Ford pickup? You betcha.

This made us late, and it gets dark quicker in the hills, even in summer. We'd been looking forward to that advertised hot tub all day. So, unpack, grab a bite to eat, into bathing suits, just in case, and into the tub...ah, bliss...

...until we wanted to go back inside. And found the spring locks. And realised where the keys were...and the cell phone...and the car keys...

I had no shoes on. I was wet and in bathing trunks. The nearest cabin was a quarter mile away. The inhabitants might be armed, probably were, come to think of it, there were bears out there...and I am harmless and near-sighted. The neighbours don't know that, although the bears might, darn it...Calling the rental people was not

I broke the door. I tried to break one pane of the door - only to find that the 'panes' were an illusion - there was a huge sheet of glass under the wooden lattice, a huge sheet of glass which shattered under my desperate onslaught into thousands of tiny pieces, which we spent half the night collecting.

I spent the other half of the night worrying about how much the replacement door would cost, just how abruptly the rental people would evict us from our holiday cabin, and whether I could afford to get us a motel. Nothing of the sort, of course - the people in Bryson City are unflappable, as far as I can tell. After apologising for the inconvenience caused by a stupid fire ordinance, they replaced the door at no expense to us. We sat around jawing with the workmen and picked up a few more tales.

Why to Tell

Anecdotes are evidence of experience, the footprints left by others in our lives. Not sharing them is a crime against our common humanity. Who needs another detective story? Tell what's in your memory.

The energetic middle-aged man noticed my book and asked me if I were English. No, American, I said. He grinned and launched into his story, while the other Germans in the train compartment glared and squirmed.

'They'll all tell you they weren't Nazis,' he said loudly. 'Well, I was - I was young and stupid. Until I fell out of that Messerschmidt, twenty years old and full of myself, I thought I would die, took me months to recover, and then they sent me to Australia, to a sheep farm, finest people I've ever met, the Australians, I recovered my sanity there, though I'd lost my childhood to Hitler...'

On and on the train rolled, from Cologne to Munich, six hours while the others tried to pretend they weren't there (the train was full), and this perfect stranger gave me the wonderful gift of his life story. I never knew his name.

Keep talking, children. Another time, I'll tell you what I know about how to listen.

Fact and Fiction by Dmitri Gheorgheni Archive


25.06.09 Front Page

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1And there should be therapy.2Germans are notoriously litigious when it comes to defamation of character.

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