Writing Right with Dmitri: How to Become a Raconteur
Raconteur: a person who tells anecdotes in a skillful and amusing way.
Have you ever heard someone described as a 'brilliant raconteur'? Think of the people you know who tell stories in a 'skillful and amusing way'. You might think of Abraham Lincoln, who used to tell tales to illustrate his points to his Cabinet. Practically every visitor to Lincoln's White House came away with a treasured anecdote to dine out on.
You might think of the celebs who liven up the chat shows. Like David Tennant explaining about his socks on Graham Norton's show. You might think of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone. Or you might remember Mark Twain.
Three or four hours. That is a long time to sit in one place, whether one be conspicuous or not, yet some of Wagner’s operas bang along for six whole hours on a stretch! But the people sit there and enjoy it all, and wish it would last longer. A German lady in Munich told me that a person could not like Wagner’s music at first, but must go through the deliberate process of learning to like it – then he would have his sure reward; for when he had learned to like it he would hunger for it and never be able to get enough of it. She said that six hours of Wagner was by no means too much. She said that this composer had made a complete revolution in music and was burying the old masters one by one. And she said that Wagner’s operas differed from all others in one notable respect, and that was that they were not merely spotted with music here and there, but were all music, from the first strain to the last. This surprised me. I said I had attended one of his insurrections, and found hardly any music in it except the Wedding Chorus. She said "Lohengrin" was noisier than Wagner’s other operas, but that if I would keep on going to see it I would find by and by that it was all music, and therefore would then enjoy it. I could have said, "But would you advise a person to deliberately practice having a toothache in the pit of his stomach for a couple of years in order that he might then come to enjoy it?" But I reserved that remark.
This lady was full of the praises of the head-tenor who had performed in a Wagner opera the night before, and went on to enlarge upon his old and prodigious fame, and how many honors had been lavished upon him by the princely houses of Germany. Here was another surprise. I had attended that very opera, in the person of my agent, and had made close and accurate observations. So I said:
"Why, madam, my experience warrants me in stating that that tenor’s voice is not a voice at all, but only a shriek – the shriek of a hyena."
"That is very true," she said; "he cannot sing now; it is already many years that he has lost his voice, but in other times he sang, yes, divinely! So whenever he comes now, you shall see, yes, that the theater will not hold the people. Jawohl bei Gott! his voice is wunderschön in that past time."
I said she was discovering to me a kindly trait in the Germans which was worth emulating. I said that over the water we were not quite so generous; that with us, when a singer had lost his voice and a jumper had lost his legs, these parties ceased to draw. I said I had been to the opera in Hanover, once, and in Mannheim once, and in Munich (through my authorized agent) once, and this large experience had nearly persuaded me that the Germans preferred singers who couldn’t sing. This was not such a very extravagant speech, either, for that burly Mannheim tenor’s praises had been the talk of all Heidelberg for a week before his performance took place – yet his voice was like the distressing noise which a nail makes when you screech it across a window-pane. I said so to Heidelberg friends the next day, and they said, in the calmest and simplest way, that that was very true, but that in earlier times his voice had been wonderfully fine. And the tenor in Hanover was just another example of this sort.
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
Now, why is Twain's anecdote interesting, even more than a hundred years after he went to the opera? Because he's telling us about real people he's met, and we haven't. He brings them to life for us by mimicking their expressions. He tells us what was unusual to him about the place and time, and invites us to make our own assessments. We learn something about how Wagner's music was received in its own time, and why, and what kinds of music lovers Germans were back in the 19th Century.
What Twain doesn't do is let his persona take over too much of the limelight. That's the way to spoil a good anecdote. See if you can tell what I mean.
The Smurfs danced on the screen in front of me. I remember choosing the Smurfs, because this older Boeing had seven in-flight entertainment channels….
Rachel Elizabeth, 'Blond Wayfarer Blog', quoted in 'Bloggers and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Travel Day'
Now, the rest of the anecdote, such as it is, has nothing to do with Smurfs or in-flight entertainment. It's scarcely an anecdote, really: the author had a bad experience with air turbulence which apparently caused a fear of flying. And this person writes a travel blog. Frankly, I find this sort of 'anecdote' extremely boring. It's all because of the personal details, so important to the teller, so tedious to the reader…
Do you get my point? Read some more of the story excerpts from that travel article. The one about the kitty expressing its displeasure with the travelling person by piddling on the luggage is familiar (who hasn't had that happen?) but, well, dull. Why? Because it's not really interesting if it's happening to someone else. If it happens to you, it's interesting, though not in a good way.
What ruins an anecdote?
- Excessive personal detail. You know, the kind where you kvetch about the bad service or explain at unnecessary length just why you bought that darling souvenir? Cut it out. Nobody wants to hear it, they have problems of their own.
- Overprecision. My favourite example is when a married couple are telling about their trip. He: 'We had the most amazing encounter with a rabid wolf. It was Tuesday night…' She: 'No, dear, it was Wednesday. Don't you remember? It was just after we had that argument about whether to let the kids swim in the lagoon…?' He: 'Oh, yeah. And then that idiot from the next cabin came by and wanted to play Parcheesi at nine at night. Can you imagine?...' (It's twenty minutes before they get back to the rabid wolf, and by this time, you're experiencing early hydrophobia symptoms yourself.)
- The attempt to 'look good' in your story. If you met Prince Charles, do not tell us what you said to His Highness, if you can possibly avoid it. My all-time favourite was the professor who told us in class, 'I told Hermann Hesse, I said, "Hermann, du wirst eines Tages richtig geschätzt…."' Translation, 'Hermann, someday you'll be truly appreciated.' But that's not the point of the anecdote. The point is that the speaker got to say 'du' to Hermann Hesse, a world-renowned writer. 'Du' is a special pronoun for very close friends, or used to be, before the internet.
So how do we make our anecdotes memorable? We keep the background information simple. We avoid tedious detail. We stick to the part that others will find interesting, not just ourselves. We stop trying to be the 'hero' of every story. In fact, we try to fade into the wallpaper and let others shine. Or we let ourselves be the butt of the joke. Or we tell something about someone we met on the trip (and not what we said to them). If you think that's no fun, then don't tell stories. Write blogs: apparently they're big business. If you mention the travel website often enough, they'll pay you to do this, even.
But tell sharp, funny or exciting stories, and maybe somebody will call you a raconteur.