The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

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Ahhh, a much better choice for the writing class I’ve enrolled myself in. Gornick has been an invaluable guide to memoir writing and an enjoyable read, and compared to Nancy Hale’s dusty and irrelevant tome from 1960, this was a treat to read and slurp up ideas.

“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.”

It’s the movement toward knowledge that matters:

“The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or the movement toward it—that counts.”

She includes great snippets from a variety of writers (unlike Hale’s over-reliance on Out of Africa), including Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” going on to pinpoint what it is about Orwell that we admire while hating his actual person:

“Orwell himself was a man often at the mercy of his own mean insecurities. In life he could act and sound ugly: revisionist biographies now have him not only a sexist and an obsessed anti-communist but possibly an informer as well. Yet the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose. This George Orwell is a wholly successful fusion of experience, perspective, and personality that is fully present on the page. Because he is so present, we fell that we know who is speaking. The ability to make us believe that we know who is speaking is the trustworthy narrator achieved.”

The drive toward 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.”

On the need to create sympathy for the subject no matter how ugly they are:

“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.”

She sums up what she’s learned over decades of teaching: know “who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two.”

Of course, a laundry list of titles to check out: Ackerly’s My Father & Myself, Hazlit’s On the pleasure of hating, Harry Crews Why I live Where I live, Gosse’s Father & Son, Wolff’s Duke of Deception, Zinsser’s Inventing the truth.