Anecdote as Building Block versus Stand Alone
Looking back at the one book I have written, I find that it has a kind of musical structure. In the same way that music-- whether classical, jazz, popular or folk forms like bluegrass or klezmer-- may ultimately be reduced to melodic and rhythmic phrases., my prose relies entirely on variation between relatively brief, largely self-contained passages of description and explanation on the one hand and dialogue and anecdote on the other.
I think this manner of writing reflects the way in which I taught literary analysis to upper high school students for over two decades. I'd break down chapters in prose fiction or non-fiction, acts in plays, or stanzas and sections in poems into discrete passges, that I'd assign to duos, trios or quartets of students, for each of which I'd set a couple of open-ended guiding questions. Once I felt adequate progress had been made, I'd rotate the kids into new groups in which each one or two took responsibility for presenting their part to the others to put the section back together into a harmonized whole.
In prose though, I always had a preference for the anecdote-- the short, self-contained storylet, above the other elements. I suspect this relates to my roots in New York Jewish culture, in which a high value was placed, both at home and at school, on telling jokes and packaging one's experiences into funny little stories. While most such stories lend themselves to serialization into longer, nested narratives like the books I enjoyed most when I was still in high school myself-- such as The Odyssey or The Arabian Nights, or from more recent times, The Trial or The Good Soldier Schweyk-- a few are ineluctable outliers that I find myself hard pressed to link to others. There follows here one such story, the event at the center of which occurred this past summer.
In July, to escape the southern Spanish summer heat, my wife and I went travelling in Galicia in the cool, rainy, green northwest of Spain. One afternoon, we were sitting at an outside table on the harbor of a large town where few foreign tourists venture. Our two friendly little dogs were with us and a couple of hippyish girls from a nearby table, whom we had been suprised to overhear speaking English, came over and asked to pet them.
Being former high school teachers, my wife and I soon got chatting with these girls, who had just graduated and were travelling in Spain before going off to college, a step into quasi-adult life about which both admitted to feeling not a little trepidation, along with eager anticipation as many young people do. My wife told them not to worry and that a large part of her newly released humorous memoir, A Young Lady's Miscellany, was about her own misadventures at university in England thirty years earlier.
The chattier of the two casually asked us whether we had any advice for them about this next chapter in their lives and I said that in the dim light of my own distant experience, it seemed important to stay open to everyone and avoid falling into cliquishness. She then asked me to elaborate with an example, which I did by explaining how, when I had arrived at university, I'd had the incredible luck to make an impression on a cheerful, talented and very cute girl from a public school out west who did me the honor (though I didn't see that then) of getting intimately involved with me.
Meanwhile though, I was falling in with a group of black-clad students from backgrounds much more similar to my own who shared my more-sophisticated-than-thou pretensions, and who cast a cold eye upon my bright and breezy new girlfriend, as a result of which I soon pusillanimously blew her off in a callous manner that she rightly found quite hurtful. I had never seen fit to apologize for my crappy conduct and when I thought of it occasionally over the decades, the way I'd acted and the contemptible attitude behind it inevitably made me cringe.
I could see upon closing my homily that I'd made the desired impression on my young audience of two. The looks on their faces showed that they were suitably unimpressed by how I'd behaved and wished never to do anything like what I had just related, or to have it done unto them. After a moment, the one who'd elicited my un-humourous anecdote asked, “Where did you go to college anyway?”
I duly answered, at which she fairly exclaimed, “Wow, weird my mom went there!”
“Huh, did she, maybe I knew her,” I said, “What years was she there?”
“Oh, I doubt it,” the kid answered, “You look a few years older than her.”
“I look quite a few years older than I am,” I replied, “I was in the Class of '85.”
“Holy crap, that's when my mom graduated!” she laughed.
“What's her name?” I checked
...But actually I didn't need to. I had, during the preceding dialogue, registered the resemblance in the pert facial features and bobbed hairstyle, as much as in the bubbly manner that went with them. I'd just been given the uncanny opportunity to apologize unwittingly to a daughter for the shabby way I had treated her mother on another continent thirty-five years earlier. Ever so occasionally, coincidences that occur in truth really are stranger, as in more improbable and pointed, than those of fiction, whether on the page or on the screen.