The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

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.

Fierce Attachments

Vivian Gornick’s memoir about growing up in the Bronx, her mother, their still-continuing walks around the city where they talk and experience the teeming life around them. Utterly charming and engaging, the type of memories and passionate relationship between mother and daughter that makes others pale in comparison. Gornick describes growing up in the Bronx ghetto in a building full of Jews and the occasional Italian/Irish/Polish family that stuck out as “other.” Her father dies suddenly, her mother relishes her role of widow, throws herself into it head over heels, embraces it fully. The neighbor, also a widow, teaches Vivian about sex and how to pull herself together to look good. The escape to City College great for Vivian as a way to finally talk about books with others for hours and hours, all of them cooped up in the cafeteria, reluctant to return home to their cramped Brooklyn or Bronx apartments with their families. Brief life in the Bay Area where she studied at UC-Berkeley, met an artist, married, found that to be empty. She returned alone to NYC, tramps through life with various affairs and the ever-present mother.

The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir

[amazon template=image&asin=0374536155]

I think I read this one too quickly on the heels of Vivian Gornick’s 1996 collection of essays, because I remembered reading several bits of the 2015 memoir in the earlier book. Regardless, the book is a love letter to NYC, to walking the streets, to the odd friendships that wax and wane in the city. There are some interesting new bits, like the man on the street speaking into a microphone to a crowd about sales being up on sunblock lately because white people, who think they’re superior, “can’t even make it in the fuckin’ sun!” He points at some of them, says “You– the white people. Don’t even belong. On the planet.” Repeated is the bit about the 90 year old woman Gornick yields her seat to, and to whom she says you look fantastic, not a day over 75, and the old woman says “Don’t get smart.” Also the man who lies spread-eagle in the street, what is he doing? Maybe he’s depressed. Also repeated is the dinner conversation restrictions– topics introduced in order to allude, not discuss; 3 minutes on the headlines, 7 on European travel, 2 on current exhibit at MoMA. “Strong opinion was clearly unwelcome, as was sustained exchange.” Final dispute with the book is her mention of the pre-code aviatrix movie, but she mixes up the plot, says the pilot must give up flying after her marriage, but according to searches, the movie is Christopher Strong (with Hepburn), and she has an affair with a married man. Bah, who needs fact checkers for memoirs.

Two potential books to check out as suggested by this– biography of Evelyn Scott (Pretty Good for a Woman) and the inspiration for the title of this one– The Odd Woman by George Gissing.

Approaching Eye Level

Dear book designers – do not sacrifice function for form. Page numbers that are designed to be cut off midway, and that float either at the top of the page or the bottom depending on your whim are not useful. Aside from that, Vivian Gornick’s 1996 collection of essays is a gem. She begins with an exposition on the streets of NYC, what she witnesses and participates in. Vignettes of neighbors, street vendors, people walking across the street or simply lying in it, flailing. She eats frozen yogurt on a hot day, is accosted by someone who thinks she’s someone else, they devolve into a one-sided conversation that ends with him saying she’s like a psychiatrist because she listens to him. The bus encounter between two old ladies, one of whom is sitting and taking up 2 seats with her packages, the other of whom wants to sit, a Gertrude Stein-type, asks the woman nicely if she can sit down. The seated woman nods and slowly (too slowly) begins to move her things. Two blocks later nothing has changed. Gertrude Stein softly says, “We ain’t none of us getting any younger, lady. Move the fucking packages.”

The second essay remembers waitressing in the Catskills, all the young kids rooming together and working together, kicking back tips up the chain, witnessing the power of money during the chow mein incident where Gornick opts to skip delivering that course in the chaos of the New Years Eve meal and gets fired on the spot when the rich blonde complains that they didn’t get the chow mein. “For the first time I understood something about power. I stared into the degraded face of the headwaiter and saw that he was as trapped as I, caught up in a working life that required someone’s humiliation at all times.”

The next essay details how she got into feminism in the heady days of the Second Wave:

That is a moment of joy, when a sufficiently large number of people are galvanized by a social explanation of how their lives have taken shape and are gathered together in the same place at the same time, speaking the same language, making the same analysis, meeting again and again in New York restaurants, lecture halls, and apartments for the pleasure of elaborating the insight and repeating the analysis. IT is the joy of revolutionary politics, and it was ours. To be a feminist in the early seventies – bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. Not an I-love-you in the world could touch it. There was no other place to be, except with each other. We lived then, all of us, inside the loose embrace of feminism. I thought I would spend the rest of my life there…

Then the unthinkable happened. Slowly, around 1980, feminist solidarity began to unravel. As the world had failed to change sufficiently to reflect our efforts, that which had separated all women before began to reassert itself now in us. The sense of connection began to erode. More and more we seemed to have less and less to say to one another. Personalities began to jar, conversations to bore, ideas to repeat themselves. Meetings became tiresome, parties less inviting.

The fourth essay is a tribute to Rhoda Munk, of whom I have never heard and the internet has no record of – is this Gornick changing names to protect the not-so-innocent? “Munk” apparently wrote a magnificent book, Woman and Authority (no record of it either, doesn’t exist), “the book had some like lightning: a flash of excitement and danger that lit up the interior landscape. It was the kind of writing that left you staring off into space with the book lying in your lap long after the last page had been turned… The writer had used the daily experience of an ordinary woman to tell the story of authority and the human race.” Must find this book. Anyway, Gornick reviews the book for the NYT and later meets Munk at a party. They become friends, they share a beach cottage one summer where the stream of Munk’s invited guests began to depress Gornick: “a stream that never ebbed, never flagged, never slowed down or dried up. They came in twos and threes, ones and fours. They were young they were old; they were women and men; white, brown, yellow; they were students neighbors cousins; acquaintances of a moment, friends of a lifetime…” She never writes a follow up book.

Friendship is dissected in the fifth essay, what life is like as a visiting professor to all the little university towns around the country with their cliques and rules and mannerisms. She meets like-minded people and loves them, “I am hungry for the sentence structure in their heads.” But in each case, she could not hold onto the friendship.

In friendship as in love peace is required as well as excitement. Unless both are present, the graft does not take. Connection remains a matter of the unreliable moment. Without steady connection the friendship has no future. In New York anything without future is instantly flung back into the distracting surge.

The final two essays dip into living alone and letter writing, two of my favorite activities. Obviously, this collection was tailor-made for me. Feminism, street observation, picking apart and being obsessed with the idea of friendship, letters, living alone. Looking forward to reading Gornick’s latest collection of essays as soon as I can wrangle a copy.