On Anecdotes

by Intermittent Rain ~ October 30th, 2015. Filed under: Thoughts about Writing.


Here’s an anecdote:

Late one rainy Saturday morning I caught the X9 bus going downtown. The front was full so I sat near the middle, on one of the long bench seats where your back is to the window and you face the opposite seat.

I heard a woman’s voice from the rear. She was Filipino and I couldn’t tell if she was speaking English, but I did understand that she was trying to get the attention of the elderly Chinese man sitting across from me. On the seat was a bag of vegetables. Beside that, a dark hard shell glasses case.

The woman was pointing in the direction of the case and my assumption was that she had seen this fall from his pocket. I put my hand in front of the man and waved. When I had his attention, I pointed to the case. Without looking where I pointed, he shook his head, mumbled something, and faced forward again. I exchanged glances with the woman and shrugged. Her expression didn’t change.

As the bus slowed for the next stop, I heard the crinkle of the cellophane-like bag and the man walked past me to the door. The case still sat on the seat. I flicked my eyes toward it and asked the woman, “So that’s not his?” She replied with something that may have been ‘No’, or maybe ‘I don’t know,’ or maybe something else entirely.

I wondered whether I should take the case to the driver, but the bus was filling up. A fellow in his thirties with his own bag of things pushed the case to the edge of the seat and sat down. Next time I looked back, the woman had gotten off the bus as well. I wasn’t sure where best to get off myself so I was busy Google Mapping the location and left soon after.

If I wanted to use this anecdote, the first idea that comes to mind is to use it as an opening, then continue with an essay on the multiculturalism of society or on communication in general. Another option would be to criticize myself for my half-hearted efforts at doing a good deed.

Now, this anecdote is true but it could easily be fiction or used in fiction. As is, it tells a little tale but without the essay or further explanation the point is not clear. A series of vignettes with me as the central character might tell a story about me or about my city. A series of vignettes with communication issues due to multiculturalism would have an obvious meaning. A more creative option could be to write the incident from the perspective of me, then of the woman, then of the man, then from the view of another passenger witnessing the event, and tell a story about perspectives. Or I could wait until I’m working on a longer piece were this incident might be useful to reinforce a theme that already exists.

But here it’s just an anecdote. And I’m using it to point out that an anecdote alone is not necessarily a story.

An incident may have poignancy, it may have things worth thinking about. I could tell this to a friend and ask, do you think I should have picked up the case to make sure the man understood? Or, isn’t it interesting that I understood the woman’s communication but not her words, nor the man’s? Maybe when I tell this to a friend, the friend jumps to their own interpretation and we could continue the conversation that direction. But standing alone, an anecdote may not be a story.

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