Structure is Everything: An Interview with Vivian Gornick

August 26, 2019 § 4 Comments

Tgornickhe 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?

GORNICK: Always.

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.

GORNICK: Interesting.

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.

kathleenbjonesJONES: 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 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.

AWP 2014—“Another Voice in My Mouth: Persona in Poetry and Prose”

March 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

chinook_salmonA guest blog post by Renée E. D’Aoust

Panelists: Holly M. Wendt, Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, Virginia Shank

In the best introduction I heard at AWP this year, moderator Holly Wendt suggested this panel would think about ways in which “work that puts significant distance between the speaker and the writer” can assist in “reimagin[ing], challeng[ing], and expand[ing] the writer’s or narrator’s persona.” These five writer-teachers think about persona across gender, historical time, and/or language. Practical exercises “to write those other voices well” provide transfer points between the classroom and the writer’s own work.

Why think about persona? Because creating persona helps a writer “get out of her own head space,” according to Virginia Shank. Shank affirms “authenticity comes from specific details” and stresses the effort to get past the student impulse to resist art (or artifice) by insisting, “But that’s what happened!” Teaching students to build a persona between themselves and readers is helpful to get away from that imperative insistence on “what happened.” One can “write as a pop culture figure” or in the “persona of a cartoon character” (for example, Elmer Fudd’s brother) as a concrete (and fun) way to think about language and voice. The suggestion is to “write in another voice, so when you return to your own voice, you will recognize it.”

Kathryn Henion discussed “persona as it relates to multiple narratives with different points of view.” Persona can help move a writer, or student, “outside her comfort zone… to consider, understand, and convey multiple viewpoints.” Henion focuses on the psychology of character through the use of a “rotating third person with a limited point of view.”

Deborah Poe has a beautiful example of “empathy as a feeling into” character. Persona used in this manner weaves compassion through narrative, a sense that persona as “mask/character/role” can help a writer “empathize or feel into this character.” Poe suggests that the creation of persona, or character, can bridge gaps—between the writer and the creation of text, between the reader and the artifact of text. Poe conceives of “empathy as a simultaneous gesture of proximity and distance,” and this compassionate writing can help “move beyond binaries and ethically rendered characters.”

Holly Wendt presented on a character’s grammar and how the issue can undermine rather than support the creative mode when used too freely. (In other words: Establish the way a character talks early on, but don’t use those contractions or apostrophes throughout. Establish the sound early on and then avoid distracting spelling of a character’s language.) Used judiciously, to establish character, the upside of a character’s grammar is that it provides clues to where the character disconnects. Annie Dillard: “One language does not code for another. We must change the way we think.” Wendt thinks of persona as an “exploration into the space between the reader and the writer—a space where persona can be created…. Persona can give the writer objectivity of and from the self.”

For Claire Hero, the second person “you” opens “a relationship between writer and self… that establishes an awareness of audience because of the artificial nature of ‘you’”. According to Hero, “all personas help ask and answer the question: ‘Where does the person fit in the larger world.’” The use of the present tense, and “you,” is useful in creative nonfiction as a means “to explore rather than to emote.” In this construction, the “you” can “privilege exploration over emotion.”

On this panel, we find a “reaching toward empathy,” as Deborah Poe terms it, and “a moment that is lost upon the lyric ‘I’”. Through persona, we explore a “weighted melancholy without risking melancholy.” The writer-teachers provided a handout with excellent examples and exercises for further inquiry. Each provided examples from their own published works and works in progress.

I hope VIDA will take note of the five powerhouse intellects and writers on this panel!

Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press), a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year in memoir. At AWP 2014, she presented on two panels: “Switching Genres Midstream: Finding the Right Match” and “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative.” For more information, please visit:

Lee Martin Throws His Voice

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Lee Martin, a great teacher, superb novelist, and outstanding memoirist, has given some recent thought to what he can do with voice in memoir versus what he can do in fiction.  Here’s an excerpt, with a link to the whole discussion at the end.  Lee has a new novel, out in a few weeks, and it will be a wonderful read, trust us:

So … what can I do with voice in memoir that I don’t necessarily do in a first-person novel? Let’s see if I can throw out some thoughts to see what thoughts of your own they might provoke…

1.  My voice can be extremely earnest in a memoir, its directness and intensity and “me-ness” (for lack of a better term), more readily accepted than such a voice sometimes is in a novel where irony is often the thing that tempers the overly urgent and reflective response to experience.

2.  I can live within that reflective voice longer and more intensely in a memoir. I can let action, and character, and image, and dialogue wait for me as long as I prove to be interesting in those “voice of experience” passages.

3.  I can be more people (more parts of my persona) in that reflective voice in the memoir as opposed to the first-person narrator who is usually more distinctly divided between “before” and “after” in a novel. Perhaps the memoir form more clearly announces the layers of the narrator’s persona, and, as a result, the voice becomes more textured, made up of more sounds coming from a number of different aspects of the narrator’s character.

… Things slow down for me in memoir. The form gives me permission to linger over small details and large actions as well. My voice becomes more textured with nuances of tones and personae. It embraces and gives full throat to the person who lives simultaneously within the experience being narrated and the various, countless positions I occupy beyond that experience. To me, my voice in memoir more readily gives expression to the multiple pieces of myself that create it, whereas in a piece of fiction there seems to be a more demarcated distinction between the voice of the character within the narrative sequence and the voice-over of the storyteller relating that tale.

Here’s his FULL POST and his NEW NOVEL, Break the Skin.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with persona at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: