Anecdotes are the Antidote by David Stone

My daughter stormed to bed because she wasn’t getting her way.

“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger, ” called her brother in concern.

“The sun’s already down. It’s dark outside,” she retorted.

Electronic devices with photo and video capability may be ubiquitous, but too many classic moments go uncaptured, whether because they are too dependent on dialogue for a photo to portray, or because they pass in less time than it takes to finger a passcode and press record. Anecdotes are the antidote.

You remember anecdotes? Those short, amusing stories popularly featured in Reader’s Digest’s “Humor in Uniform,” “Out of School,” and “All in a Day’s Work.” Or maybe you think of one of your favorite English teachers or writing textbooks suggesting anecdotes as an attention-getting option for opening an essay.

If you’ve recently listened to a political speech, a sermon, remembrances at a memorial service or a toast at a wedding, you’re more than likely to have heard an anecdote.

I believe the time has come for anecdotes to find as consistent a place on our desks, coffee tables, bookshelves, and screens as photos do. It’s time for us to sharpen our storytelling skills and to store our memories in anecdote boxes.

Selecting a box to store your anecdotes can be as much fun as writing your stories. You can browse thrift or antique stores and find a classic wood or metal card box or maybe a library card file. A search on the Internet on sites like eBay or Etsy will offer you hundreds of creative options. If you’re crafty, you might enjoy making or decorating a box for yourself. You can purchase basic card boxes at office supply stores or in the stationary aisle of a big box store.

Index cards, first utilized by the eighteenth-century naturalist Carl Linnaeus to record and organize information, continue to be an inexpensive and effective choice for writing small amounts of information.

My family records our anecdotes on colored 4″ x 6″ cards, organized by each family member’s chosen color. My fourth-grade daughter enjoys writing hers on pink. My fifth-grade son likes green. My wife writes hers on orange. I like plain, old white cards. We use yellow cards for stories from extended family and friends.

Anecdotes capture a single moment like a haiku. The story of most specific events can be effectively told in three sentences. The first sentence provides the context and establishes the conflict. The second sentence creates anticipation through complication. The story’s essential twist and resolution occur in the third sentence.

My wife told me of her grandmother’s confusion when she immigrated to Canada from England after World War II. “Why have they put the tea in these tiny little bags?” she wondered. She cut apart a box full of teabags every week to fill her canister with loose tea until a friend finally explained to her how teabags worked.

When you prepare to write an anecdote, tell it out loud to someone first to see if it makes sense and has your desired effect. If you don’t get the response you’re seeking, try telling someone else. Begin making changes until you get your desired response.

Make sure you begin where your specific story starts and leave out any earlier events. Be sure you limit yourself to a single incident. Create context in the first sentence or two.

Although I usually prefer the succinctness of anecdotes in three sentences, many people use more. Reader’s Digest seeks stories of 100 or fewer words.

Determine the central point/turn of the story you’re telling. Leave out everything that does not bear on this point/turn. Include only the essential characters. Stop immediately after the story’s central point or turn.

I prefer to keep my anecdotes in a box instead of a journal. I can revise an anecdote as many times as I want. Since I write them on paper index cards, I can simply throw the card from an earlier draft in the recycle. The box also makes it easier for our family to keep our memories together.

Recently, my daughter wrote, “Near the end of recess, I sat down with a friend to talk. Suddenly a bird pooped on my arm. “Eww!” we yelled, and then burst into giggles.”

That’s the version that she put into our anecdote box. She told me the story first on the way home from school. She retold it to her mother and brother at home, and then we worked through a couple of drafts together after supper. I love the pride she takes in crafting her stories and signing and dating the back of each card.

I hope you’ll share one of your anecdotes with me in response to this column on the PE Inlandia Literary Journeys’ blog.