Story, anecdote, or essay?
Next week, Scott and I will delve into the topic of marketing and discuss things that can help, or hinder, your sales.
Last week we talked about CONFLICT in fiction, and I promised to discuss the differences between a story, an anecdote, and an essay.
First, let’s define an ARTICLE. This is a factual piece, usually written for a magazine, newspaper, or a reference source. We’re not going to discuss this further other than to point out what it is. An article consists of straight facts, without opinions.
An ESSAY is short piece written from the author’s personal point of view. Essays are also factual, but they include opinion and possibly a lesson learned. Essays may additionally seek to convince the reader of a particular viewpoint, as opinion pieces and editorials do.
A personal essay is written in first person (which is why it’s called personal) and from the author’s point of view. It generally details a personal experience, and as with any other type of essay, may express opinion or a lesson the author learned. Personal essays tend to be more intimate than straight essays.
Closely related to the personal essay is the MEMOIR. As one reference described it, the memoir tells us what happened. The essay goes further and reflects on the meaning of what happened. Also, memoirs are often much longer pieces than essays.
An ANECDOTE is usually described as a short, often amusing, account and may depict a real incident or person, but they may also be part or total fiction. However, this is a narrow definition of anecdotes. They can fall into a sometimes shadowy region because some of them try to masquerade as short stories or essays. Anecdotes, like essays, may give the reader something to think about. The difference is that anecdotes are often based on an experience (real or imagined) being told to the reader, while an essay is usually expressing feelings.
So what distinguishes essays, anecdotes, and stories?
If the piece expresses opinion and a conclusion, or has some personal resonance, it’s likely an essay. If it is simply the telling of a tale without opinion, it’s probably an anecdote. As we discussed last time, to be a STORY in the literary sense, the piece must possess a goal (or desire), conflict, and resolution (or resonance with the reader).
Below I present a short piece of mine that was published in a small literary magazine in 2005. Read it, then try to decide whether it’s an article, essay, anecdote, or story before I tell you which it is.
by Rick Taubold
He remembers that one sad summer he came home from college. Behind his parent’s house only the solitary oak remained, rising above the vacancy where his lovely cherry trees had once been and presiding over a practical space for grass and a storage shed.
He remembers the young boy treading through the woods over crusty snow beyond the edge of his parents’ property. His tight-laced leather boots crunch the frozen leaves and twigs. Next to his woods, silhouettes of winter weeds caress the snowy field that spreads out velvet-blue in the twilight. Each spring he walks this same path searching for wildflowers and the mysterious green umbrellas, whose real name he never knew, sprouting up from the forest floor.
A smaller part of his woods inhabit the back of the property. Every summer he plays here, building forts, and one adventurous year he builds a small tree house. He admires the tall oak upon whose distant limbs he imagines the best tree house of all.
But his favorite things are the nine wild cherry trees. As spring arrives, he waits for their blossoms to make dark, sweet promises. He walks over the stains from the previous year’s crop and prays against a late frost.
One year, he catches the fragrance of newly turned soil coming from deep in the big woods and there he discovers new adventures. After school and on weekends, while the bulldozers are asleep, he walks up and down the dirt mounds they have made.
Next to the barbecue pit his Dad built stands a rusty fifty-gallon drum for burning trash. On autumn days he relishes the fragrant smoke of burning leaves–before laws forbade that simple pleasure. Best of all are the coveted aerosol cans, shaving cream or whipped cream, that he tosses into the blaze and joyously awaits their percussion.
Houses and streets grew from his woods, and the boy became a man. The man imagines that every year, on his birthday, the spirits of his past gather around that oak tree and bow before it in homage to the majesty of his boyhood.
To decide which kind of piece it is, look at the various elements. Does it have conflict? Does it reveal an opinion or a lesson learned? Does it seem to be fact or fiction? Good writing, even if it’s fiction, should have a sense of reality to it, enough for the reader to be able to suspend disbelief. This piece feels as if it could be a memoir or personal essay, but it’s written in third person, not first.
So what is it? Well, it is indeed a personal essay that broke the write-it-in-first-person rule. When I wrote originally it, in first person, I found that first person didn’t convey the feelings I wanted, so I tried third person. The magazine editor agreed it worked that better that way. Note that the last paragraph clearly isn’t fact, but the author’s imaginings. This is gives it reader resonance by extending the author’s experience.
Why can’t this be a story or an anecdote? It’s not an anecdote because it’s more than a simple tale being told. This has a personal aspect to it, and it expresses the author’s underlying opinion that progress for purposes of practicality took something from his life.
It’s not a story because, while there is some internal conflict (a sense of loss a piece of one’s childhood and the attempt to recapture it), there is no goal-motivated conflict. Had the piece been about the sale of the land and the attempt to recover it before everything was plowed under, then it might have been a story.
Now, let’s confuse things further and bring up one more term: CREATIVE NONFICTION. Some of you may know what that is, but others may have heard the term wondered. Essentially it is nonfiction–and it must be totally factual to be called this–that has been given a literary spin. By this we mean that the story and the events are true, but literary license has been taken with the language in order to craft the piece so that it reads as if it were fiction.
Thus, creative nonfiction is not simply “based on real events.” These are the real events expressed by the author in a way that brings them to life instead of simply telling them. And because it’s written to read like fiction, it must have story and character arcs and conflict. Otherwise, it’s just a personal essay or a memoir and likely far less interesting.
My discussion of this topic has been very brief and is far from complete. I invite you to do some research and explore these concepts further to understand them even better so that you can be sure what type of piece you’ve written, especially when submitting to a magazine for publication.