Speaking Anecdotally

When I first started taking Portuguese literature classes, I came across a literary form I wasn’t familiar with, the Crônica. A short short story meant for publication in newspapers, the Crônica may be the chief form of short fiction in Portuguese. Since these stories are almost always told in a chronological order, are based on everyday life and are often slightly critical, they might be best compared to the Anecdote (although they are generally longer). [In Portuguese, the term Anedóta doesn’t exactly mean the same as our anecdote, but instead is limited to humorous stories.]

I guess what surprised me most about the Crônica was that it never seemed like a separate literary form to me. I thought it was simply a short story that appeared in the newspaper, no different from other short stories. In this sense also, I think it is like the Anecdote, a form that is sometimes lost or ignored because of its ubiquitousness, and because it is so often contained in other forms.

In the LDS context, I think the Anecdote is probably one of our most prevalent forms of literature, regularly used both by prophets and most Church members.

Mormon literature is highly dependent on forms of literature that, like the Anecdote, seem ubiquitous. Letters, Journals and Diaries and, more than anything, Sermons are important parts of our literature, and the latter includes, I think, the most revered works of Mormonism.

But when I think of my favorite LDS sermons–general conference addresses usually–its usually because that sermon included a favorite anecdote, those stories that lead us to laugh or cry, and that illustrate the point that the speaker wants to make.

What makes the use of anecdotes so interesting is their reuse. We hear those same stories told to us again and again, in the sacrament meeting talks and lessons that Church members prepare. When we need to make the same point that a General Authority made, we often use that same story, told in our own words, to illustrate the point. And sometimes we even use the story to illustrate a different point!

Another interesting aspect of the Anecdote is that it does get recycled in different words. Often the person retelling the story isn’t as skilled, and many times details of the story are changed, added or even left out. Yet somehow the stories maintain their same character and value (unless the reteller errs).

I don’t have the literary background needed to really judge where anecdotes fit in to Mormon literature. Certainly there is room to challenge their place because of how much they can change in the retelling. When the words used to communicate an anecdote can change so much, its easy to wonder if the anecdote is actually a literary work, as opposed to source material. I’ll let someone else with better skills tackle that question.

But regardless of the answer, I think there is room for exploring the anecdote’s role in Mormon sermons, literature and culture.

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5 thoughts on “Speaking Anecdotally”

  1. In Women who Run with Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes talks a lot about oral tradition in reference to the passing of information from mother to daughter. It seems to me to take the form of what you describe as Cronica.

    (This is me talking off the top of my first impressions, so please forgive my rambling.)

    It seems to me the “anecdote” (remember those varicolored books Especially for Mormons that were popular when I was a teenager?) as we hear it in General Conference (and re-hear it and re-hear it and re-hear it) is simply oral tradition in action. There is a moral embedded somewhere in the story that, even if you don’t hear it on first telling, you might hear it on some repeat telling down the line. Then you pass that on. That they are written down does not, IMO, make them “literature,” precisely, but some hybrid, maybe? I personally don’t see such things as literature, even when I’m reading them; I hear them.

    You know, storytime around the campfire.

  2. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with the MIA handbooks from the first part of the 20th century. It seems to me that the anecdotes you are describing are what those handbooks called “retold stories.” MIA classes were coached on how to select a suitable story and retell it in one’s own words, with specific coaching on pacing, voice modulation, and body carriage. “Retold stories” was a category in the annual speech festivals and appear on minutes of opening exercises and entertainments.

    It’s been long enough that hardly any living person would remember that church-wide training, but I wonder if that isn’t how this pattern you noticed became so established in our culture?

  3. Mojo:

    The thing is, I think its kind of on the line between literature and idea — perhaps hybrid is a good way of looking at it. Each retelling is, I think, what the copyright law calls a “derivative work” (other derivative works are translations, screen or stage adaptations, etc.) Are such “derivative works” really a different work of literature?

    If they are, then each retelling of an anecdote is a separate work, that should be considered separately.

    If not, then there is some meta form of the story (like objects in Plato’s cave, I suppose) that represents the actual literature, and everything else is just a derivation of the original.

    Probably both ideas are correct, leaving us with no clear answer at all!

  4. Ardis, once again your command of the details of Mormon history is astounding. I love the idea, and, to be honest, I wish I had received such training as a youth — I think it would have been much more valuable than what I got in AP/YW or APMIA or whatever it was called back then. (Gee, its only been 30 years!!)

    I would be fascinated to know if that was the source of the custom of using anecdotes in talks.

    Of course, its also really not any different than the use of anecdotes that we see in speeches outside of Mormonism. I don’t think we’ve seen too many political speeches this year that didn’t include some kind of anecdote about a constituent somewhere who did or experienced something that illustrates the point the politician wants to make.

    So, I’ll bet there is a broader change in the development of discourse in English (or perhaps even elsewhere or even centuries ago, for all I know) that led to the use of anecdotes in speeches.

  5. The European and South American newspapers have a tradition of these types of short work, that range from fiction to criticism to reportage.

    Robert Arlt is a famous practitioner of this style — he called his “Aguafuertes.”

    It’s also a form that’s related to the concept of the flâneur

    I now regret that I didn’t produce any of this sort of thing (or at least the notes for them) while on my mission. I only wrote in my journal twice on my mission and both times were to record happenings/meetings that would fit well into this literary form; whereas, they wouldn’t have made very good anecdotes.

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