Structure is Everything: An Interview with Vivian Gornick
August 26, 2019 § 4 Comments
The publication of Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments in 1987 was a landmark event, establishing Gornick as a distinctive voice in the genre of memoir. Now, more than thirty years later, that book is experiencing renewed life in Europe, has been translated into ten languages, and recently earned first place in the New York Times‘ “50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.”
Gornick followed up about a dozen years later with The Situation and The Story, explaining how she created the persona of an “unsurrogated narrator” to serve the story she wanted to tell in her memoir. The Situation and The Story became an indispensable guide to the literary strategies of creative nonfiction, popular in the classroom and often quoted.
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of the memoir Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works. The interview is divided into three parts.
Part 1: Writing and Teaching The Situation and The Story
KATHLEEN B. JONES: You wrote The Situation and The Story almost 20 years ago.
VIVIAN GORNICK Oh, my god, is it that long?? (laughs)
JONES: What motivated you to write that book?
GORNICK: Well, actually, it started because somebody else came to me, a teacher of writing, and wanted to do this book together. I can’t remember how I knew her. She came to me with this proposal that we write a textbook together. And, of course, the lure was, we were going to make a fortune, because we would write a textbook that would be adopted all over the country (laughs). And, I agreed to it and got involved in it enough to see it really did interest me. We went along for a while but we really weren’t getting anywhere. We didn’t work well together, and I didn’t really know how to structure it for a textbook. She became, I thought—but who knows—she became exasperated with the difficulties that I posed. Probably it was out of frustration we were not going to make this thing work. So, I said, let’s abandon this. And once we abandoned it I realized that I had really become interested in writing, completely on my own, my version of what it meant to create a nonfiction persona. I realized I had been reading this stuff, and writing this stuff, and teaching this stuff for fifteen years by then. I thought it would be a piece of cake. But, it wasn’t, of course; it was really hard to structure. I thought it would take six months. It took two years (laughs).
JONES: It actually has become kind of a bible…
GORNICK: Yes, it has…
JONES: In many places…
GORNICK: I know; it’s taught all over the country. I’m amazed by it myself.
JONES: So if you were writing the book now, is there any way you would change it?
GORNICK: No! I look at it and I’m amazed at how good it is (laughs). I can’t believe I wrote it…It was really hard to write. I wrote a whole manuscript and I knew I hadn’t gotten it right. I just could feel in my gut it wasn’t in the right shape. I’m really a writer who needs an editor all the time; there’s a certain constipation in my own way of writing. I telescope too much in first drafts. I’m not sufficiently aware of what the reader actually has to know, or not know. I need somebody to set me straight. And a very talented editor at FSG all those years ago read [the manuscript]. He was brilliant about what I needed to do and how I needed to restructure it. Structure was everything. Just as, in the life of nonfiction writing, structure is everything. It took quite a while for me to figure out the elements that were necessary. The most important thing was developing my idea of the persona… which I lay out in the very beginning. The girl who is doing the eulogy and how she knows who she is in relation to the subject and therefore she knows how to write—that was very important.
JONES: In The Situation and The Story, you wrote about why you thought memoir writing was, at that time, felt as a particularly urgent call. You said modernist novels had been bypassed by this genre. Now, some critics declare the age of memoir writing to be over. You might read—ironically, in a New York Times book review of some new memoir—a critic saying she thought we were done with all this, but this book has really done something different with the form.
GORNICK: I really don’t know what to think. The reason that is said is because we live now in a time when every deluge is just gigantic. In a previous time, when one literary genre replaced another, you might have had hundreds, now you have thousands of instances. The memoir, the memoir, the memoir. So it’s a glut on the market.
Look, the fact of the matter is, most memoirs are not literature, and most novels are not literature. When a good one comes along, its power is felt all over again. I do believe that the passion for the novel has run its course for the time being. It doesn’t feel, not to me at any rate, that one looks forward to the next novel. You know, it’s so hard for me to have any really organized opinions about all this.
All I know is this: I grew up in a book culture which means that that book culture never had huge numbers of devotees. Where people took literature seriously, we all read the same books, we all read the same reviews, and we waited for the next book of a writer to come out. The reviewers in the New York Times Book Review were of a really high order. You had that whole generation of Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, all those men who were very serious critics writing the Sunday Times Book Review. You don’t have anything of the sort anymore. All that has just dissolved. So what we have is this gigantic entertainment world and a world of celebrity where writers have become celebrities. It all feels hit or miss to me. I remain devoted to looking for the same experience in a book that I always look for. And when I say a book is good or not good it’s out of a mindset that was formed 50 years ago. So I really don’t know what to make of this business—the age of memoir. We’re talking about 20 years. I mean, we’re too old (laughter) to subscribe to that sort of thing as ‘the age’ or, better yet, ‘the era’.
JONES: Say more about that.
GORNICK: I do think the memoir will continue to be written more readily than the novel, and only a fraction of them are works that will last. I mean, they come and go, and most of them are not literature. They remain books of confession. Somebody writes a memoir about not being able to give birth to a baby and then what follows is her encounter with fertility clinics. There’s that. Or then there’s alcohol and there’s incest and there’s just a glut of stuff. I wrote [The Situation and The Story] out of what I thought was a serious consideration of serious books. I know people now who teach courses out of this book. They make their students read the books that I refer to. And the same with my other collection, The End of the Novel of Love, they teach out of that. And I’m thrilled by it. But they do it because they think those books I wrote about are serious examples and they can run the rest of time. There will never be a time when those books will not look good.
JONES: Surely those books you cited aren’t the only ones?
GORNICK: Oh, of course. There are always others.
JONES: Have you been in contact with people who use The Situation and The Story the way you describe?
JONES: Do they talk about how they structure their classes?
GORNICK: No, and that’s interesting. I should ask. I never have asked that. I shouldn’t say I’m in contact with people. I meet people all the time who tell me they teach it but I never have asked how exactly they teach it. Well, you probably know more.
JONES: I did teach it in a writing class.
GORNICK: How did you use it?
JONES: I used it as the main way to think about how to structure an essay and find the language and persona necessary to tell whatever the story was. And then we looked at other texts. Interestingly enough, this was not in a literary writing class, but in a course about writing a master’s thesis, with people from a variety of disciplines.
JONES: Some students were creative writers; others were writing in philosophy, or anthropology.
JONES: Each one of them had the situation of their research that she needed to turn into a story.
GORNICK: Exactly. Very good.
JONES: So that’s how I used it and tried to make it fit all these different disciplinary fields.
GORNICK: That must have been fun.
JONES: No matter what your field, you still have to write and you have to write well. You may be constrained by the structure of what a university tells you must be done for a thesis. But the narrative, the story, can bear all those same qualities you described.
GORNICK: My niece, who is in social policy, writes reports nonstop. She understands you have to be telling a story all the time. With her, it’s easy to see what her situation is—it’s the background of her discipline. But she knows, within that, you must tell a story and she’s made use of that. Just to clarify on that concept should help you.
JONES: Are you still teaching?
GORNICK: No, no. I try not to. I taught a couple of years ago in Iowa and I swore I’d rather go on welfare than do this again (laughs).
JONES: When you were teaching, how did you structure your workshops?
GORNICK: I had a very simple method. The workshop would just concentrate on the immediacy of what they were writing. I made all my students write 1,000 words every other week. A three-page piece. And then we would workshop them. I did not give out assignments, but the pieces would generate themselves out of the previous week’s discussion. I had no pedagogy.
JONES: Assigned readings?
GORNICK: For sure. A lot of the books I refer to in the books I wrote came out of those courses.
JONES: No in-class writing exercises?
GORNICK: No. these were graduate students. Gotta write.
JONES: At the end of The Situation and The Story, you wrote that all the years of teaching led you to conclude that you can’t teach people how to write but you can teach them how to read. How do you teach people how to read?
GORNICK: You depend upon them learning from the critiquing, if you’re going to teach people how to gain judgment about their own work—and what else are all these MFA programs about? They’re allowing people to write and to hear their own writing read in the company of others so that they see how it hits a reader, when it seems right and when it’s absolutely wrong. And through the critiquing, which keeps concentrating on the relation between the persona and the story in the situation, you learn by example. If you can’t learn by example you can’t learn. There’s nothing for you to memorize, no body of information that’s being passed on. It’s all a matter of experience; it’s a matter of doing it and hearing it done, and learning from that.
Now, I taught for 6 or 7 years at the University of Arizona, a perfectly standard, straightforward, conventional MFA program. It happened to be filled with perfectly ordinary people teaching. It also happened that David Foster Wallace was a student there. And he kept writing his stuff and he kept being told it was no good. Not a well-crafted novel.
Now, when you have someone like that, all bets are off. So, I think what it did for him was, it showed him he had to go his own way. And he had genius. He wrote Infinite Jest, a thousand or so page novel, soon after leaving the program.
So these programs are for the most ordinary of the ordinary. First of all, very, very few writers emerge from them. Very few. The mass of people go on to other lives. They’re not writers. They’re not writers; they’re wanna-bes. And so what you can teach, as I said, is you can teach someone how to read their own writing better. You can’t teach them how to do it better, unless , if someone has some writing talent, they can make better use of it because you’re being taught how to criticize yourself.
JONES: I think the books that you read while you’re in a program enable you to see how to write better.
JONES: Because you look at them and take them apart differently, instead of just being immersed in the plot.
GORNICK: Right, how did I become a writer? Out of City College’s English Department. Because of all the great books people put in my hands.
Part Two of this interview: The Other in Oneself
Part Three of this interview: Of Reading and Culture
Kathleen B. Jones taught Women’s Studies for twenty-four years at San Diego State University. She is the author of two memoirs, Living Between Danger and Love, and Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction International, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The Briar Cliff Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She recently served as Brevity‘s Associate Editor while completing an MFA in writing at Fairfield University.