The Other in Oneself: An Interview with Vivian Gornick (Part 2)
August 27, 2019 § 6 Comments
Brevity’s Associate Editor Kathleen B. Jones, author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, interviewed memoirist Vivian Gornick about The Situation and The Story, her career as an author, and her other works. The interview is divided into three parts. Part One, “Structure is Everything,” ran yesterday, and can be found here.
Part 2: Finding the Persona of the Narrator and Other Craft Elements in Creative Nonfiction
JONES: Let’s talk about craft elements that you discuss in The Situation and The Story. You described how, when you were writing Fierce Attachments, you came to the realization that the voice you habitually lived in wouldn’t do. Can you talk a little bit about the process of discovering what you call “the other in oneself who can complicate the subject and avoid writing the story with cardboard characters”?
GORNICK: Well that has to do with a lot of soul searching. When I say the ‘other in oneself,’ I mean really digging hard to see how you contributed to the situation. Because otherwise there’s no drama. I wrote an essay on letter-writing, which is in Approaching Eye Level, many years ago. And the way it started was I read a piece in the New York Review of Books by one Englishman reviewing a book by another Englishman in which they were both bemoaning the loss of letter-writing, saying we all grew up with letter writing and no one writes letters any more. I thought about how I really grew up in a letter-writing world, in a working class tenement in the Bronx. My mother wrote letters, the next-door neighbor wrote letters, the doctor wrote letters, everybody wrote letters. So this review was bemoaning the loss of letter writing and I was reading the review, right here in my apartment, with a friend, and I was bemoaning the fact that I live in world where there’s no letter writing anymore. And this man, my friend, got irritated with my bitching and he said, ‘Oh, fuck that, why don’t you write letters? Don’t give me the world, the world, is doing this to you and that to you.’ That’s what it sounded like, the world is doing this to me. ‘Oh, I feel so terrible, the world seemed so much richer when we were all writing letters, now nobody does.’ And as soon as he said that, I had my essay.
Now that was a personal essay. So, I sit down to write this essay, and I’m aware of the fact that I’m going to use this particular narrator to show how this world has changed, using myself first and foremost. Once I decide to do that, then I start to inspect all the times, in another time when I would have written a letter, but this time instead I picked up the telephone. This is on the cusp of email, we don’t even talk any more (laughs).
JONES: True (laughs). We don’t even email. It’s text.
GORNICK: Oh, I don’t go that far. I only do email. So, back to this essay, I had in my mind the controlling outlook of always knowing I was going to be reaching for the moment when I was going to inspect my own feelings, which is, of course, how it all changes, to see how I had internalized picking up the phone instead of writing a letter. And that was the person, the narrator, who was going to write that story. And it was a great pleasure to hit with such particularity on that position and that condition. And that’s the personal essay. I don’t know….what was my point? (laughs)
JONES: I’d asked you to describe the process of discovering the other self.
GORNICK: Well, that’s what I mean..
JONES: The investigation..being a little hard on oneself, so to speak.
GORNICK: Yes, yes.
JONES: Not letting oneself off the hook.
GORNICK: That’s right, exactly.
JONES: Instead of creating this ‘woe is me self’—the victim.
GORNICK: Right, precisely.
JONES: The monster has to have humanity or it’s not interesting.
GORNICK: Absolutely. But the reason that writing political social polemic lost its charm for me, which it had when I was a young woman writing for The Village Voice, was I really got tired, even though I feel the weight of the terrible world we live in, I got tired of writing from that perspective, of accusing the world of not being what I wanted it to be.
JONES: Like a harangue.
GORNICK: Yeah, it’s a rant, no matter how good it is. In the end, it’s a bewailing…I mean political journalists should do it; that’s their job. But not a writer, not a writer who is in the business of fashioning out of the expressiveness of language, and the power of structure, something else.
JONES: I also think there’s no place for the reader in that kind of writing.
GORNICK: No. That’s right. The reader’s not invited. The reader is the passive receiver. Just sit there and shut up.
JONES: And literary writing not only engages the imagination, but gives you space to think.
GORNICK: Absolutely. I certainly hope I’m letting the reader in.
JONES: Do you have any other recommendations for strategies to find the voice for a personal essay writer or memoir writer? For instance, how do you approach the rewriting?
GORNICK: For myself?
JONES: Yes, and as advice for others. Stuff that comes out in first draft doesn’t usually work very well.
GORNICK: No. Well, what can I tell you. In my case, it’s all intuition. You read what you write and then you see, am I losing the subject? Have I got the subject? I can’t really tell you how; my gut tells me.
JONES: Sometimes, does reading something else give you ideas?
GORNICK: Well, everything, conversation. You’re stuck at something, you go away, you live your life for that day, you take a walk, you have a coffee, meet a friend, read a book, or a newspaper, or something, and somewhere this writing is on your mind, and something clarifies. There are no prescriptions for it.
JONES: You talk about tone of sentence and syntax in The Situation and The Story, and give a lot of examples. About the very different kind of writing that comes out of Seymour Krim, for instance—and he reappears in the Odd Woman and the City—versus, say, The Duke of Deception, by Geoffrey Wolff.
GORNICK: Well, Krim was a very self-conscious Beat writer. The Beats were all tone.
JONES: Any examples of books you’ve read lately, beside those you mention in S&S that display innovative syntax, that particularly fits the story well?
GORNICK: I never can think when that question is asked. I need to see a list. Actually, I was just recently reading the work of an American writer, a man whom I just met recently, but who’s been around forever, in fact, he’s my age, Jerome Charyn. He writes in a very jazzy personal way and the way he’s writing is very much what he’s writing about. People are doing all kinds of interesting things.
In the end, it all depends on how smart you are and how much you know to make the book interesting. If you isolate a story, and do it well, it’s not that hard. I mean it’s hard to write it, it’s not that hard to have the idea. But there are no prescriptions for it.
Read Part One
Read Part Three
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.