Of Reading and Culture: An Interview with Vivian Gornick (Part 3)
August 28, 2019 § 7 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.
Part 3: Modes of Writing and the Art of Structure
JONES: A lot has changed in the world of writing since you published The Situation and The Story in 2001…
GORNICK: Really?? No kidding? That went right by me. (Laughs)
JONES: Oh, c’mon.
GORNICK: Well, what do you mean by that?
JONES: I’m just thinking about the explosion of the internet, the development of other arenas for writing, whatever you think of them, blogs, other forms of instant writing. I wonder what effect you think this has had on literary nonfiction, if anything?
GORNICK: Well, that’s something even I think about a lot, by which I mean, I’m completely out of the world of the internet. Totally. I don’t do anything. I’m not on any of these social media outlets. I don’t read blogs. I don’t do anything. However, even I have become aware of, as you say, this explosion of intensely immediate—I don’t really look upon it as writing—it’s an intensely immediate form of expressiveness through words. I look on it mostly as venting more than anything else.
Sometimes a blog is called to my attention and I read it and I think, this person is just free-associating here on the page. And it can go on and on and on because they’re not really writing, they’re waiting to figure out what they think themselves. Then again, there are times when I have to look something up myself and then I will stumble on these thousands of reviews of a book that I was looking for or wanting some more information about, and I’m amazed by how intelligent and thoughtful so many of them are. They’re usually short reviews.
For instance, I was writing a piece on Elizabeth Bowen some time ago and I looked something up on the internet about one of her books, a piece of information, and I stumbled on a variety of reviews, peoples responses. Elizabeth Bowen is a hard writer to truck with; her syntax is extremely demanding and, because her sentences are so convoluted, many people are put off. But there was so much smart, thoughtful responsiveness and often from people who said, ‘I’m not much of a reader but I stumbled on her and this is what she made me feel.’ But this is not writing. None of this is about writing.
It reminds me of the fact that, you know, children have all kinds of minor talents, a child can suddenly produce a poetic sentence. I remember a teacher once did a study in which he made all these 6 and 7 year old kids write something about some subject and one of these kids wrote, and I still can remember this, ‘I am so sad that my tears go around the corner before they come out of my eyes.’ So now, I’m sure his mother put that sentence up on the refrigerator and announced, ‘My kid is a genius and he’s going to be a writer.’ Well, he wasn’t a genius and he wasn’t going to be a writer. And in all the years of teaching, there’s never been a single student who didn’t have one piece in them. But this is not writing.
JONES: Well, some blogs are different. Brevity’s blog has a blog of very focused essays, usually by teachers of writing for other writers about some element of craft, and they’re edited.
GORNICK: OK. Oh, well that’s different. Then that resembles the world of print. The old world of print.
JONES: Exactly, so in a sense what I’m saying….
GORNICK: So that hasn’t changed…
JONES: No; there’s a shift where what you would call writing has another venue for being circulated.
GORNICK: Yes, yes, right. So it’s electronic now instead of print.
JONES: In books too, there’s the potential for even the form of the book to be exploded again. The way we moved from the illuminated manuscripts to the printing press…
GORNICK: Yeah (quizzically).
JONES: Now, with this electronic form, there’s the possibility for layers to be added.
JONES: Visual, aural…I have a friend who’s a poet who experimented with different ways of integrating forms of visual and aural creativity into a set of poems about a river.
GORNICK: You mean you’d be reading a book on your computer and suddenly it would speak to you?
JONES: No, it wouldn’t speak to you, but the possibility would be there for visual images and sound to be pulled up, to explore other dimensions about what’s been written.
GORNICK: None of that means anything to me. (Laughs) I will live and die a very conventional reader. What I require from writing is structure, and language, and development that is conscious. What can I tell you.
JONES: Because other modes would be distracting?
JONES: Pulling you out of the flow of the writing, you’re pulled out of the story?
GORNICK: RIGHT! Exactly, you are pulled out of the story.
JONES: Let’s talk a little about structure in relation to The Odd Woman and the City. How did you discover the structure for this?
JONES: I read it the first time all the way through. Having just reread it, I see how you’re making quite substantial leaps from one thing to another, your conversations with Leonard then on to something else.
GORNICK: I wrote it 50 times.
JONES: 50 times?
GORNICK: I put this thing together differently 50 times until it felt right. I can’t really say anything more than that. For years, I wanted to write about Leonard and me because I thought we were a paradigmatic friendship. Between the two of us, the things we said to each other over these 20-25 years, were really sufficiently indicative of a generation, of what we were all living through. And I couldn’t find a way; I didn’t know how to do it.
Then I discovered what I always knew about my relationship of walking through the streets of the city and I thought, ah, I can do it that way, if I can figure out how to write about walking in the street and the adventures that I have with people and then using Leonard and me, not as the main characters, but like a Greek chorus. So that was the first part. I got that and I knew that was right.
And then…well that was it, there were so many other things I wanted to fit in and I didn’t know how to do it until I did it. The style I adopted over many books is collage and collage depends on your intuition for what goes with what. And I can’t explain that, when the transition feels right and when it feels strained and when it doesn’t. When does one thing lead naturally to another? I can’t tell until it feels right. And also, before I wrote the book, I had about 30 pages of this stuff and I sent it to a friend of mine, then the editor of the Paris Review, and he loved it and said, I’d like to publish this, if you’ll allow me to fool around; I don’t think it’s in the right order. And he had a little bit of genius. So he changed the order of things and once he did, I saw it differently myself, and saw he was right, and I took my lead from that. I was able to think more clearly about what should go where. But there are essentially two things: the incidents in the street, and me and Leonard.
JONES: But then that is refracted through many other things, other friendships. With Emma for instance.
GORNICK: And literary stuff, little bits and nuggets of literary history, and life that I just throw in. It all began to feel right, once it did feel right. I can’t really tell you how.
JONES: What are you reading now and what are you writing now, and how are the two connected?
GORNICK: Well, I just finished writing, but I can’t seem to finish it. For two years now, I’ve been writing a book about rereading—rereading books I loved as a young woman. So it’s that hybrid form of memoir and criticism, in which I describe myself at various stages, reading different books. I start with Sons and Lovers, a book I read three times between the ages of 20 and 35, and each time, identified with another character, and I show why and how. It’s a very short book, really like a book-length essay. But I can’t seem to bring it to conclusion. I’m having a hard time.
JONES: You recently wrote about Doris Lessing in the New York Review of Books.
GORNICK: That’s right, the cats. Actually, that little story about Lessing and the cats was written in one of my low points in this book. I did that for comic relief, to amuse myself.
JONES: Yeah, but you had these insights about yourself. What you got from reading Doris Lessing at this point in your life. What you heard in her that might have attracted you before, but now repelled you. Her lack of compassion.
GORNICK: Right. Her inability to stop protecting herself. I have to explain that better. I have to rewrite that part.
JONES: I read the D. H. Lawrence excerpt in Harpers.
GORNICK: That’s the first piece in the book. And then I do Collette and Marguerite Duras, Elizabeth Bowen, Natalia Ginsburg, a lot of women. Delmore Schwartz, Thomas Hardy, all very short. Whole thing is 120 pages. And I can’t finish it. I am so exhausted. This past week I swore I would make all the changes by Thanksgiving. But I got this cold and my head is in a fog. So I am torturing myself because I think I should sit down at the desk every day…By Christmas it will be finished.
JONES: What else are you reading?
GORNICK: When I am in this mood I’m reading three things at once. Actually what I read to calm myself when I’m feeling rattled is George Orwell.
JONES: (Laughs) You find Homage to Catalonia or 1984 calming?
GORNICK: Not those books…There’s a four-volume work of all his journalism, written during the Second World War, with a huge amount of literary work, book reviews, essays. A lot on literature. He wrote as an English socialist, and critic of socialism, but as an intensely political man. He wrote because of the politicalness of life. He was really extraordinarily educated. In one long piece, an excerpt from a book he was writing about the English people, there are parts where he’s trying to pull apart the English language grammatically to shed light on the English people. And he’s so brilliant and knows so much. I don’t know anywhere near enough to process this grammatical essay. During the Second World War, for two years, he wrote a column called ‘As I Please’ for a newspaper called Tribune in England. You would be amazed at the things he wrote—a nice cup of tea, the perfect pub, American soldiers on the street—and I read these things, they’re small gems. His voice is so clear, so direct, you would think it was yesterday. He’s writing from 1942, I feel like he just wrote it yesterday. It calms me.
There was a time, in every culture I think, when the culture was in trouble, people read. And it certainly doesn’t feel like that’s happening now.
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.