Annotation by Susan Tuttle
Vivian Gornick, in her work The Situation and the Story: the Art of the Personal Narrative, distills the personal narrative to its essence. The title repeats itself over and over, until it is like a mantra: situation, story, situation, story, situation, story. This is the central question to which writers always return: Is this the situation or the story?
Gornick starts out with her reaction to a eulogy held for a colleague. She wonders why, although it contained essentially the same information as the ones before it, this particular eulogy moved her and hung in her memory. The eulogy was based on a memory. Starting there, Gornick uses a head-bone-connected-to-the-neck-bone logic and links the relationship between the memory, the story, and the impact on her:
The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred…. This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that had stirred me; caused me to feel… the presence of the one doing the remembering… I became aware at last of all that was not being said… This feeling resonated in me. It was the resonance that had lingered on…. (4-5)
She discovered the why it had moved her by dissembling what was said and how it was expressed. In the course of this examination, she also discovers that “Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona” (6).
And there she has it: the personal narrative becomes interesting and accessible the moment the author moves away from center stage and allows a persona to experience the story behind the situation. This moving away is key because “…without detachment there can be no story” (12). She goes on to clarify: “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). And there can be no insight without detachment.
Don’t misunderstand: this is not a how-to book, but rather a private and analytical examination of what the personal narrative is. She looks closely at her own work and how she “… struggled to isolate the story from the situation…” (20). She actually practices what she preaches throughout, demonstrating through her persona – a writer – the effort, insight and courage it takes to explore the personal narrative as a literary form.
In memoir and personal essay writing, the inherent I-centeredness of the piece can pose a challenge if allowed to slip into a “dear diary” style. Gornick defines the nuance between writing as self and writing with a strong persona: “I had a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me…. I had created a persona…. it wasn’t their confessing voices I was responding to, it was their truth-speaking personae” (23, 24). The idea of having someone speak for the writer on the page is liberating – a simple idea that could free the author of the psychological constraints of writing about personal experiences in the first person. She goes on to explain: “I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.” (25).
In an essay, we learn, while the writer uses persona to make a story of a situation without allowing emotions to take over, the persona can also be used to explore a subject other than the self. Gornick writes, “Whatever the story has been… there’s been a situation to contain it and a truth speaker to interpret it.” (26) Thus, memoir can, on the strength of its persona, reveal a truth that cannot be seen by the narrator, but is nonetheless revealed to the reader. While at times this makes for an unreliable narrator, if sustained, it can be extremely revealing:
A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom…. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened (91).
Yet, Gornick’s honesty and humility about her own writing experiences persuades us that she will not lie to us (14, 19, 24).
It is this honesty, confidence and inquisitiveness, both as a reader and a writer, that guides The Situation and the Story. Gornick’s advice to the writer is based on her own profound interest and delivered in a supportive and meaningful way. She sums it up best: “…I trained my eyes on the writing…. To read out of one’s own narrow but clarified need, I concluded, was to teach oneself better how to write….” (165). Thus, by allowing us to come along on her journey, we are enlightened through Gornick’s commentary on and examples of the necessity of a strong persona for the self-as-narrator.