I was listening to an interview with Nancy Packer, author and former director of Stanford University’s creative writing program. (For those of you with access to iTunes, you can find the interview under the podcast How I Write – Feb. 4, 2011.) She talked about how often writers come up with a great idea to write about, but when they look more closely, all they really have is an anecdote. It’s not really a story.

So what is the difference?

Adair Lara, in her book, Naked, Drunk and Writing provides this example:

My sister Nora told me about taking a cab down a dark back street to a business meeting at a hotel in Taipei when abruptly the driver jumped out and ran off. Nora was left with her suitcase and little blue overnight case in an empty cab. She couldn’t even read the street signs and had no idea where she was. In the end, though, she found her way back to the hotel without much trouble.”

This would be a great experience to write about, but is this an anecdote or a story? The answer lies in whether anything has changed.

Laura says all her sister learned was that she could take of herself when she needed to. But is that change? It would only be a change if she had never been able to take care of herself before; but in this case, she knew she could. Therefore, there was no change, which means this is an anecdote, not a story.

There is nothing wrong with using anecdotes in our writing; they just can’t be the main event, says Lara. If there is no catharsis, no growth, no change involved, then you’re left with an anecdote – a part of some larger whole – rather than a self-contained essay or story.

Often we start our writing process with an anecdote – some vignette. For memoir, it may be a memory of you and your mother sitting at the kitchen table while she drilled you on your French verbs for an upcoming test. For fiction, you may have overheard two teenage girls swearing they will never, ever, ever get married. Your job, however, is to flush these out.

Why do you have this particular memory of you and your mother? Did she push you too hard all the time because she wanted to live vicariously through you? When you were growing up, was she the only person who believed you could accomplish whatever you set your mind to? Had she just come home from her second job of the day and was doing this because you asked her to, when she still had dinner to make and laundry to do? Get to the bottom of your anecdote to see what the real story is.

What triggered the interest in the two girls refusing to ever get married? Did they come from broken families and didn’t want to ever face the possibility of a divorce? Did their parents seem miserable, but refused to divorce “because of the children”? Had they seen their fathers abuse their mothers? Let your imagination take you beyond the scene you witnessed.

Packer, in the same interview, talked about the delight of finding out what her stories are really about. She may start with an anecdote, but somewhere along the way, it finally comes to her – the story’s purpose. (It is a delightful moment when that realization comes to us!)

Your memoir may really be about how hard you saw your mother work, which made you swear you were never going to be as poor as she was, so you pushed yourself to get that college degree and a good job.

Your story about the two girls may actually be about how one of them comes to understand that while she is certain her parents have an awful marriage, she comes to learn there is more to their relationship than she has realized before.

And anecdote can provide great inspiration, but molding it into a full-fledge story is the job at hand.

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