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.

The interview is divided into three parts. Part One, “Structure is Everything,” and Part Two, “The Other in Oneself,” ran earlier this week.

gornickPart 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.

kathleenbjonesJONES: 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.

GORNICK: How?

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?

GORNICK: Yes.

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?

GORNICK: Ah!

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 Loveand Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. Her writing has appeared in Fiction InternationalMr. Beller’s NeighborhoodThe 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.

 

Blogging into the Quantum Foam

November 14, 2018 § 18 Comments

euniceBy Eunice Tiptree

I hit “publish,” and there it goes – out into the blog-o-sphere for all the world to see, another post launched into space. And there it is, another post no one will view, lost in the cosmos.

Although public, my blog is more secret than Trump’s tax returns. I have no followers, except for one kindhearted friend, and most posts come up with zero views. Oh, once in awhile someone strays onto the site and quickly vanishes – poof –  as if into the Oort Cloud.

When I say I post into space, that’s a pun. I started my blog nearly four years ago to mark the 50th anniversaries of the Gemini orbital program, posting as each flight came up. I’ve been marking the anniversary of every step to the moon. I grew up in those days, an acolyte of Walter Cronkite, and as a magazine writer I wrote about the Shuttle program for more than a decade.

At first the blog was truly secret, telling no one as I played with it. I’ve since let a few people in on the secret, but other than the one friend, I’m still waiting for them to drop by. I’ve never tried to publicize the blog at sites where space enthusiasts might gather. For some reason – perhaps age – I don’t care. I’m jaded about social media and value my privacy more than publicity, especially in this day of Trumpian self-promotion. When I think of the word brand, it’s cousin, branded, comes to mind – as with a cow or Chuck Connors (see short-lived 1960s TV shows). I guess I’m a Luddite. I still listen to CDs and LPs and watch old VCR tapes. The only streaming I do is in the bathroom.

Sure, when hitting “publish,” I feel foolish knowing no one will read my words, feel a momentary flutter wishing to be heard. I’d like to have readers, but not “followers.” Trump wants followers; I don’t. I admit I am on Facebook, but rarely post anymore – don’t want the grim reaper of Facebook compiling data on me. Anymore, I rarely glance at it, and then only to see if anyone I know has died.

I enjoy my secret; it makes my blog stand out by being hidden. I enjoy the writing. The blog has changed with time, my writing has changed – that’s the reward. When I started, I wrote it imagining I was part of each crew and described the sensations of the missions as I flew them. I still do that but slowly shifted to shorter entries where I fish out key moment of the flights or little-known aspects to amplify. It’s fun digging through the surface, mining the missions for something new that surprises me. It’d be nice to welcome you aboard the capsule . . .

2018-11-09_0727. . . But the older I get, the less I think about being published. Call it the J.D. Salinger Syndrome. I had my run a long time ago in the golden age of desktop publishing (as in PageMaker, v.1), writing to an audience of thousands every month.

If readers find me somehow – that’s fine. If not, I think we’ll connect anyway.  Everything I write changes me. What changes me touches the people I know – and spreads from there.  I think of it in terms of physics, the concept of quantum foam. The theory states that at the quantum level, space/time is not smooth, but bubbles like foam, a foam that is everywhere. I see it as connecting everything, with our actions bumping into those of everyone else. Every writer is a published author with no need of platforms and publications. It’s all published in the quantum foam.

So why am I submitting this for non-quantum publication? Good question.  Certainly not to gain publicity for my blog. I’m not going to reveal its name.

Perhaps I’m fooling myself, masking a desire to be published as grand as any. Or perhaps I’m a troll, trying to stir up trouble with this essay, make a name, practice for a run for the Presidency.

Perhaps I am submitting this because I don’t expect it to be published. What editor would publish a piece whose premise is you don’t need an editor, a publication or even a reader? Maybe I’m just making a cosmic joke.

I’ve said too much. Excuse me now, as I need to prepare to journey to the Moon with Apollo 8. It’s going to be fun. As Jim Lovell radioed as the spacecraft went behind the moon for the first time, “We’ll see you on the other side.”
___

Eunice Tiptree, too old to be usefully employed, writes every morning.  Afternoons, she tends the weeds in her yard.  She also enjoys writing about herself in third person as if she was a big shot.  Once upon a time, she was a he and he was the publisher and editor of Countdown magazine. 

Everybody’s Doing It

October 25, 2016 § 22 Comments

Knock, knock...

Knock, knock…

Blogging is dead.

Blogging is not dead.

More accurately, as Jenny Lawson (The Bloggess) puts it,

The only thing that’s dead is the possibility of making a million bucks on blogging, which honestly never existed as an attainable goal for any of us in the first place.  If you’re blogging to make a million dollars you should probably switch to something more lucrative, like…I dunno…making a sex tape.  But not with a dead person.  I’ve been very clear on this, y’all.

(go read the whole post, I promise those last two sentences make total sense in context)

None of us are going to make any money blogging, unless our blog is part of a global, social-media-exploiting, traffic-driving, email-collecting, drip-campaigning, algorithmic, Twitter-metric, SEO-conscious plan. And in that case, we wouldn’t actually be writing very much, because all our time would be spent driving clicks.

Blog anyway.

Years ago I kept an old-school Blogger blog. I wrote 3-5 days a week for two years. I linked to other bloggers and participated in “blog carnivals,” which is how we shared links to stuff we enjoyed reading, back when Facebook still insisted on an “is” at the beginning of your status and Twitter didn’t exist. I posted regularly enough that if I missed more than a couple of days in a row, readers emailed to ask if I was sick.

That’s the first value of blogging. Connecting with your audience, and with other writers. Not “building platform,” although that’s a nice side effect, but genuinely interacting with people who care about what you say, and finding out what they care about. To learn what you, as a person with the ability to write, should be examining about yourself and putting into the world on behalf of every reader who has the same story and needs to tell it, but doesn’t have the words, or the bravery (yet). Jenny Lawson’s vivid, hilarious, brutal posts about depression got her a book deal, yes, but she also let thousands of readers know they weren’t alone, that they were allowed to tell what they were experiencing, too.

Blogging taught me to put out work regularly without being precious about it. I blog here for Brevity most Tuesdays and Thursdays (sometimes I’m sick). I keep a list of topics to write about, scribble down ideas when I have a great conversation about writing in person or on Facebook, copy-paste when I get over-explain-y about writing in an email and think, this could just be a blog post and I’ll send them the link. There are still mornings I wake up without the faintest idea of what to write. There isn’t time to wait for inspiration–as it is, I’m daily thankful I live 8 time zones ahead, so I have my morning to figure out a topic before the Brevity HQ’s 7AM. Sometimes I look at the literary news and see if there’s another essay to respond to. Sometimes I remember the theatre director Anne Bogart saying,

If what’s on stage in rehearsal isn’t working, I shout ‘Stop!’ Often I have no idea how to fix it, but I always sit in the very back of the house, and by the time I’ve walked all the way down the aisle to the stage, I’ve usually figured out where to start.

Then I open the New Post window and hope my fingers will figure out where to start. There isn’t time to agonize over every word–thankfully, readers don’t have the same literary expectations of a blog as they do a book. A blog post should be the best we can do, but it’s just as important to get it out there on time. Blogging regularly increases your speed, and your ability to turn an idea into words by force of will, whether ‘inspiration’ has graced you that day or not. Blogging doesn’t replace long, slow, thoughtful pieces that coalesce from many drafts, but it keeps us in the habit.

Blogging gives us something to share on social media. We contribute positively to our civilization by sharing an idea instead of a meme, starting a discussion about a book we liked or an essay we read or an experience we’ve had. It lightens the heart to care passionately about a subject that might stir disagreement but is unlikely to dredge up hatred.

You might like Medium, or Tumblr, where Roxane Gay keeps her blog, or a curated site like The Manifest-Station, which is a little more like submitting to a literary magazine. You might like to write long posts on Facebook, like sex-icon/disability activist Erin Clark. I use Instagram as a place to post micro-essays, because carefully crafting words for 20 minutes in an airport lounge makes me feel like yes, I wrote today, and the little hearts popping up on my phone remind me, someone’s listening. Someone likes my words. I should keep doing this.

_________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, the host of the Brevity Podcast, and the author of Get Published in Literary Magazines.

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