The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

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Macmillan, Oct 11, 2002 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 174 pages
4 Reviews

A guide to the art of personal writing, by the author of Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel of Love

All narrative writing must pull from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver a bit of wisdom. In a story or a novel the "I" who tells this tale can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator but in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth.

How does one pull from one's own boring, agitated self the truth-speaker who will tell the story a personal narrative needs to tell? That is the question The Situation and the Story asks--and answers. Taking us on a reading tour of some of the best memoirs and essays of the past hundred years, Gornick traces the changing idea of self that has dominated the century, and demonstrates the enduring truth-speaker to be found in the work of writers as diverse as Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, or Marguerite Duras.

This book, which grew out of fifteen years teaching in MFA programs, is itself a model of the lucid inteligence that has made Gornick one of our most admired writers of ninfiction. In it, she teaches us to write by teaching us how to read: how to recognize truth when we hear it in the writing of others and in our own.


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User Review  - Kirkus

An insightful examination of personal narratives.In the course of her discussion, teacher and journalist Gornick (The End of the Novel of Love, 1997, etc.) observes, "Thirty years ago people who ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - snash - LibraryThing

The book suggests that good memoir is that written with the correct voice, mimicking the story being told. When that happens the memoir has emotional clout and approaches universal truth. The book does this by presenting numerous examples. Read full review

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About the author (2002)

The Situation and the Story
one THE ESSAY If William Hazlitt hadn''t awakened each morning crawling inside his own skin, he could not have written "On the Pleasure of Hating." If Virginia Woolf didn''t have difficulty attaching herself to life, she would not have written "The Death of the Moth." If James Baldwin wasn''t in perpetual violent struggle to bring the black and the white inside himself under control, there would be no "Notes of a Native Son." These pieces are the work of writers engaged at the deepest level with the essay. The form itself has released them into purposeful innerliness. Here the writing does not wander about on the page accumulating description for its own sake, or developing images independent of thought, or musing lyrically. The point of view originates in the nervous system and concentratesitself in the person of a narrator who causes the essay to move steadily forward, driven by an internal impetus that the reader can spot on page one: the obligation is to use the narrating self only to shape those associations that will provide drive and lead on to inner resolution. These writers might not "know" themselves--that is, have no more self-knowledge than the rest of us--but in each case--and this is crucial--they know who they are at the moment of writing. They know they are there to clarify in relation to the subject in hand--and on this obligation they deliver. When writers remain ignorant of who they are at the moment of writing--that is, when they are pulled around in the essay by motives they can neither identify accurately nor struggle to resolve--the work, more often than not, will prove either false or severely limited. D. H. Lawrence''s essay "Do Women Change?" is a case in point. Ostensibly a meditation on the cyclical recurrence throughout history of the modern, the piece in actuality is a denunciation of 1920s feminists. It fails, in my view, not because of its opinions but because Lawrence himself does not know what he is about. It is the writer''s unknowingness that sinks the piece. "They say the modern woman is a new type," he begins, on a note of sarcasm that never abates. "But is she? I expect, in fact I am sure, there have been lots of women like ours in the past ... Women are women. They only have phases. In Rome, in Syracuse, in Athens, in Thebes,more than two or three thousand years ago, there was the bob-haired, painted, perfumed Miss and Mrs. of today ... Modernity or modernism isn''t something we''ve just invented. It''s something that comes at the end of civilizations. Just as leaves in autumn are yellow, so the women at the end of every known civilization--Roman, Greek, Egyptian, etc.--have been modern ... "I saw a joke in a German paper--a modern young man and a modern young woman leaning on an hotel balcony at night, overlooking the sea. He: ''See the stars sinking down over the dark restless ocean!'' She: ''Cut it out! My room number is 32!'' "That is supposed to be very modern: the very modern woman. But I believe women in Capri under Tiberias said ''Cut it out'' to their Roman and Campanian lovers in just the same way. And women in Alexandria in Cleopatra''s time ... They were smart, they were chic, they said ... ''Oh, cut it out, boy! ... My room number''s thirty-two! Come to the point!'' "But the point, when you come to it, is a very bare little place, a very meager little affair. It''s extraordinary how meager the point is once you''ve come to it ... A lead pencil has a point, an argument may have a point, remarks may be pointed ... But where is the point to life? "Now, women used to understand this better than men ... used to know that life is ... not a question of points, but a question of flow. It''s the flow that matters ... And only the flow." The language is strong, the feeling vivid, and the perspective coherent, but from start to finish the piece strikes a single unvarying note of blame and accusation that never advances, never diminishes. The ills and dissatisfactions of contemporary life are steadily traced to the mean, shallow willfulness of "emancipated" women, whose behavior is seen as an emanation from something profoundly "other." There is not a single moment in the piece--not a paragraph or a sentence--when the narrator sympathizes with his subject; that is, when he sees the modern woman as she might see herself, finds in himself that which would allow him to understand why she is as she is. It is this sympathy that creates a dynamic in writing, the one necessary to stimulate internal movement. In his novels Lawrence extends it to some of his most hated characters--most famously, the brutish father in Sons and Lovers--but in this essay we are presented steadily with the contemplation of a world in decay because of the women who remain relentlessly "other." It is interesting to compare Lawrence with Hazlitt, a writer who also could have written "Do Women Change?" But if Hazlitt had written it, he would have been implicating himself continuously throughout his own rant. Repeatedly, we''d be given the line, the sentence, the image that would reveal Hazlitt''s own anxieties about women. He would let us see the fear behind the anger, and this would make all the difference. We''d realize the writer is struggling to make sense of feelings whose complexityhe acknowledges. The struggle alone would have made the subject vital. In Hazlitt the head may be filled with blood, but the writing won''t be. Neurotic as Hazlitt is, when he is writing his essays he owns his anger, and therefore he owns the material. Lawrence, on the other hand, is here possessed by his rage: it fills his head and his writing with blood; a thing that does not happen in his novels, where the engagement with women is equally visceral and equally antagonistic, yet is so imaginatively entered into that he cannot help but make the situation, and everyone in it, humanly understandable. In Women in Love and Lady Chatterley''s Lover there are repeated rants about modern women--the ones who want to be men, the strong-willed ones, the ones who deny the primacy of the blood--but these rants do not dominate the work; they are in fact necessary for Lawrence to travel deeper into his subject: the struggle of men and women together. In the end, his characters share the situation, and we feel its power all the more because everyone is enmeshed. Fiction is the genre that lets Lawrence expand within himself: the proof that he is a born novelist but only on occasion an essayist. Here, in "Do Women Change?" he cannot manage it. Women remain an undynamic "them." It''s the absence of dynamism that keeps the essay static, stifles its growth from within. There is another writer who demonstrates repeatedly--and in exactly the same way as Lawrence--that heis an inspired writer of novels but not of nonfiction. V. S. Naipaul''s vision of life is fundamentally cold, devoid in some important way of human warmth. Nevertheless, in his novels the coldness is made to burn. The viewpoint remains bleak, but the work opens out like some poisonous bloom; a mysterious empathy is in operation; the situation compels and the characters tell a story. In the nonfiction, however, the absence of sympathy is startling--and fatal. A perfect example of this striking differential is to be found in reading Naipaul''s novel Guerrillas together with his essay "The Killings in Trinidad." Both are derived from the same newspaper story about a madman who became a self-styled black radical leader and ended up performing ritual murder on a number of his followers, including an upper-class Englishwoman who''d fallen under his spell. The novel is mysteriously injected with a power of dread that is so penetrating it endows the work with visionary properties: the situation becomes metaphoric. In the essay the principals--all of them, victims and victimizer alike--are presented like bugs under glass: shrunken, pinned, diminished. Naipaul''s skin crawls with an untransformed disgust for his own subject. Disgust makes him shrink back. The shrinking attenuates the performance. In the end, the reader registers only the nastiness of the writer''s feelings. He is standing too far back to achieve the right distance: the one necessary for engagement. In all imaginative writing sympathy for the subject isnecessary 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. What I mean by sympathy is simply that level of empathic understanding that endows the subject with dimension. 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. When someone writes a Mommie Dearest memoir--where the narrator is presented as an innocent and the subject as a monster--the work fails because the situation remains static. For the drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life. In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work that will cover all the bases: some will speak the author''s inclination, some the opposition--that is, some represent an idea of self, some the agonistic other; allow them all their say, and the writer moves into a dynamic. In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but

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