Sunday, May 11, 2008

When is an Anecdote More Than an Anecdote?

I used to subscribe to The New Yorker. It was a little treat that arrived in the mailbox and it was just the right amount of bite-sized bedside reading. I'd consume that magazine like a reverse Oreo: over the course of the week, I warmed up with the Movie Reviews at the back, then read Comment, Talk of the Town, and Shouts and Murmurs at the front, and if while flipping between the covers I saw an interesting article, I'd plunge into the longer articles near the staples.

Despite my reluctance to read those meatier feature articles in the middle by reporters like Malcolm Gladwell or Seymour Hirsh, finishing those always gave me a sense of accomplishment akin to going for a jog, like I was a better, more informed person for having read them.

But not enough is said about the writers that sandwich those headliners, the warm up acts, so to speak. In fact, I would be hard pressed to name any of those writers, until today when I was compelled to figure out who was being interviewed on "City Arts and Lectures" on my local NPR station.

Adam Gopnick is a writer for many of those snippets at the beginning of The New Yorker, and listening to him being questioned about his daughter's imaginary friend Charlie Ravioli, I realized I recognized that story and had probably read several of his pieces. I was struck by one thing he said about essays, because it was so obvious, yet I had never heard it expressed out loud:

I just finished writing an essay about writing essays for an anthology of essays... and what I finally realized was what an essay is, it's simply a work of prose where the object of the piece and the subject of the piece are different and the writer thinks that he or she knows what that difference is. Where you have an object--a dying goldfish, or the imaginary friend, or the broomstick, or something, that's part of the normal run of life, and then that story about that object then really has another subject, and then the real subject is the nature of busyness or the nature of mortality, or in some sense some piece of the meaning of life--that's when an essay works.

Here's that interview at FORAtv:

The quote reminded me of something I heard Ira Glass of This American Life say during a live talk I attended: The secret of storytelling is not simply the anecdote, but the moment of reflection in which you pull some larger meaning out of it. Until he said it, I hadn't realized that this was format of the first five minutes of every episode of TAL and probably the reason why the show was so compelling (to see video clips of Glass saying something similar, and to read a nice summary of his technique, see this post from Presentation Zen).

The stereotypically bad high school essay never graduates beyond the plot-summary book report we did in third or fourth grade. Both Gopnik and Glass, despite the difference in medium, are describing why they probably got As in English all their life. The question for me is whether this skill can be taught--do kids write bad essays because they don't see the larger picture and can't synthesize ideas, or because they've never seen a good essay and haven't been taught it's structure?

I'm sure it's a little bit of both but to the extent that it's the latter, here are a few links to books featuring Gopnik. If he can relate Anna Nicole Smith's death to Jesus, Antigone, and King Lear, surely he has something to teach America's seventh graders.

Gopnik won a National Magazine Award for his essay "Like a King" which appeared in the New Yorker in 2001, and is now featured in his anthology Paris to the Moon

"Bumping into Charlie Ravioli" in which even an imaginary friend is to busy to play with Gopnik's daughter, was featured in the Best American Essays 2003.

Gopnik's aforementioned introduction will appears in this year's edition, which is due out in October from Houghton Mifflin.

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