The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian GornickPosted by Lee on Mar 8, 2012 in Craft, Essay, Non-Fiction | 0 comments
“Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she always knew why she was speaking.”
~ Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story (6)
Gornick’s approach to writing personal narrative is one I can get behind not because it is mind- or world-changing, but because it is logical. Her writing is clear and sharp, and she presents in The Situation and the Story a strong, well-researched and supported argument for writing personal narrative with some important and potent concepts in mind. Early in her introduction, she makes a bold claim:
Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say (13).
While profound, the statement hints at the truth of literature and the difficulty in writing it so both situation and story are identifiable and mutually beneficial. Gornick proceeds to evaluate a number works from that mindset, using it as one might a literary theory with which all narrative should be written, read, and considered. Though Gornick’s book is not long, she spends more time citing other works for the sake of supporting her thesis than I believe is necessary. That being said, I marked a number of places in the text that spoke to me as a writer, especially one who struggles with nonfiction decisions. Rather than establish this annotation as an argumentative essay, I’ll write it as a presentation of helpful material from Gornick’s book. Following her lead, I’ll save the most pertinent passage for last.
Gornick begins her discourse with identification of opportunities and problem areas as well as affirmation of the writer experience – the search for truthful moments and the light bulbs that occasionally alight above our heads.
This was the story I wanted to tell without sentiment or cynicism; the one I thought justified speaking hard truths…
To tell that tale, I soon discovered, I had to find the right tone of voice; the one I habitually lived with wouldn’t do at all: it whined, it grated, it accused…Then there was the matter of syntax…And then I could see, this as soon as I began writing, that I needed to pull back – way back – from these people and these events to find the place where the story could draw a deep breath and take its own measure (21-22).
In these lines, Gornick details the experience for which writers hope – not the recognition of what a story is or is not but the full understanding of how to present the story, how to pull back so that the point of view might be one of authenticity and objectivity but still enabled to get at the story separate from the situation.
Not much later, before she really begins to dissect other writers’ works, she cuts into the meat of point of view and connection to the story.
In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject is necessary not because it is the politically correct or morally decent posture to adopt but because an absence of sympathy shuts down the mind: engagement fails, the flow of association dries up, and the work narrows…The empathy that allows us, the readers, to see the “other” as the other might see him or herself is the empathy that provides movement in the writing…
So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic (34-35).
Because I consider myself primarily a fiction writer, the pursuit of the “other” in stories is nothing new. In fact, it is the lens through which I invent. But, I had never considered the potential for developing nonfiction so similarly. Interestingly, after finishing two other nonfiction craft books about persona, I have a clear understanding of nonfiction writers developing narrators as specific personas, but I had not yet connected the idea of writing the persona as the “other.” Of course, it makes more sense than anything I’ve yet come across in trying to write nonfiction. It is not about a separation from self to write the self, but the story will present itself more clearly and correctly if the writer of an account considers the power of moving the “other” through the situation. Then, and really only then, can the writer write something that others might read and be able to access let alone embody. Writing the “other” into nonfiction aids in achievement of the goal of dissecting the human experience while excavating the specific, individual experience.
Once Gornick gets to the thick of the book, she spends a lot of time evaluating personal essays and memoirs through the identification of situation and story within. While I enjoyed the critical reading, nothing jumped out to me until I got to Gornick’s definition of memoir.
A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in memoir is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense what the writer is able to make of what happened. For that the power of a writing imagination is required (91).
This passage struck me not because it is a new idea (it is not), but because it is fresh in the middle of a long stream of analytical writing, and it returns to Gornick’s definitive voice, establishing a mindful instruction, a reminder that memoir, through the exploration of self in story, is not about situation, not even so much about the narrator, but about what the narrator pulls from the story.
Gornick waited until the last few pages of her book to say what she had been beating around the whole time. “…I have learned that you cannot teach people how to write – the gift of dramatic expressiveness, of natural sense of structure, of making language sink down beneath the surface of description, all that is inborn, cannot be taught – but you can teach people how to read, how to develop judgment about a piece of writing: their own as well as that of others” (159). Her understanding, after years of teaching in MFA programs, is that reading critically is the only thing that will help aspiring writers write better. The discussion on the instruction of craft is moot if a writer cannot read and develop judgment about what he or she is reading, principally when he or she is reading something he or she has written. She cites the book Clear and Simple as the Truth to drive her point home:
“…writing must lead to skills, and…skills visibly mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them. In this way, writing is like conversation…A bad conversationalist may have a very high level of verbal skills but perform poorly because he does not conceive of conversation as distinct from monologue. No further cultivation of verbal skill will remedy his problem. Conversely, a very good conversationalist may have inferior verbal skills, but a firm grasp on [the] concepts [of] reciprocity and turn-taking that lie at the heart of the activity. Neither conversation nor writing can be learned merely by acquiring verbal skills, and any attempt to teach writing by teaching writing skills detached from underlying conceptual issues is doomed” (162-163).
She, conceding, could not have said it better herself.
Gornick ends her work with absolute truths about the craft that every writer should keep in mind during both reading and writing. “Writing enters into us when it gives us information about ourselves we are in need of at the time that we are reading” (164). This note sums the truth of her whole book – that the situations are factual and interesting and driving, but it is how the story is written and how the story is read that matters. “To read out of one’s own narrow but clarified need, I concluded, was to teach oneself better how to write – and how to teach writing” (165).