Saturday, February 11, 2006

Anecdotal obsolescence

We all, I suppose, have our little inventories of "set-piece" stories, the anecdotes that we trot out from time to time when the conversation and the company call for us to be amusing or interesting or witty. (I mean here the true stories, or at least the ones we tell as true. Mere jokes do not count.) These tales we tell are worn smooth by being told and retold; indeed, we often say them in almost the same words on each occasion. We tell these stories because we like them -- because they are good stories, with a beginning, a middle and an end; or because they are funny; or because we have found a way of telling them that pleases us. The truth is that an ordinary life with its complex threads only seldom produces a neat little package of a story, with a plot or a point suitable for general audiences. So we hang on to our classics, and look for opportunities to perform them.

Our friends and our loved ones must hear them many times over the years. (How kind to us our friends are! How much they tolerate in us for friendship's sake!) But surely they grow no wearier of our re-runs than we do ourselves. When I find myself putting in tape #137 and spinning up the old "Teaching-nuclear-fission-to-premeds" story, something down inside me shudders. Why? I am not altogether sure. It is a brief story, completely true and rather funny in that Reader's Digest "Do you have an amusing anecdote?" sort of way. It is even, now and then, germane to the actual line of the discussion into which I insert it. I think that my qualm comes from a feeling that I have, for a few moments, changed the nature of the conversation. I have seized the role of raconteur, and I am determined to practice that role upon an audience that, though possibly willing, has not exactly volunteered for the honor.

Or maybe the thing is even simpler. Maybe I just hate the feeling of becoming, for a minute or two, a kind of performing automaton. A friend, a fellow teacher, once told me that he had to change up the syllabus of his courses every time he taught them -- new arrangement, new readings, new themes every single time. Otherwise, he would find himself repeating exactly the same words in class, even the same jokes, year after year -- a thought that filled him with inexpressible horror.

But I am unwilling to give up my story. Indeed, when the subject of teaching physics to premedical students comes up, and my prospective audience has not already heard the story (or I have forgotten for the moment that they have), I find it almost impossible to resist launching into the nuclear fission anecdote. And I've been telling that same story, almost the same words, for more than a dozen years.

Don't worry, though. I'm not going to tell it here.

It is probably harmless enough to have such a repertoire, as long as it isn't inflicted too often or too implacably upon one's acquaintances. Still, I am looking for ways to freshen up the act a bit. One way would be to have plenty of new adventures all the time, so that you would have lots of interesting new material to work with. But daily life, as I mentioned, seldom gives you a tale that is neat in the telling, or that would make sense as a story to someone else. The really important things that happen in our lives are often impossible to make into anecdotes. "I saw the sunlight streaming from behind a cloud over some ruins in Sicily, and I thought about Zeus, and for the first time I really understood what the Greek myths must have been like for the Greeks." Such a moment may be of supreme intellectual and imaginative significance. It might make a poem. But it is not an anecdote, and it cannot be tossed into a casual conversation. People would just stare at you.

It occurs to me that the hard thing is to prune the catalog, to get rid of old stories that have become worn out over the years. How is this done, exactly? If it is not possible to forget these tales, how do you retire them? How do you remove the urge to launch into them whenever the opportunity arises?

So here's my idea. You can do this by writing them down and publishing them. And the easiest way to do that is via a blog. This blog, for instance.

The theory is simple. First, when you write a story down you give it a definitive form, fixed it in place, which takes it outside of your head and gives it an independent existence. So the memory on which the story is based might stop scratching at the door like a cat who wants to be let out. Second, one thing that discourages you from bringing out a story is the thought that your audience may have heard it before. It is better to pass up the tale rather than become a bore. But if you publish a story, you can never be quite certain that someone has not already heard that one. I bet that James Thurber, after he wrote his stuff, stopped telling all his friends and neighbors the one about the night the bed fell on his father.

You may, if you wish, consider this note as a warning. Over the next weeks and months, I may use this space to "archive" some of my anecdotes, to put them into permanent and honorable retirement. They are good stories, and for the most part they are also true. But they are also old, and it makes me feel old to tell them. Enjoy them or skip them as you wish. For that is the best advantage of my brilliant plan -- how easily you my friends may simply avoid them, without the least hint of discourtesy.


Blogger Joe said...

Skip them? Don't be silly.

I'm going to steal them.

So at some point in the future, you can look forward to me suffering a memory lapse, and saying, "do you know, I have this friend who taught fission to pre-med students and..."

11:07 AM  

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