The Bookshelf: Vivian Gornick

A few weeks ago I hired Amber Stoner, a writing friend I met at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, to edit a book proposal I have been trying to craft for far too long. Her first assignment was to read Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. While I read, she would read and edit. I finished the book in less than twenty-four hours. Because Amber is a talented editor who takes her work seriously, she took longer, leaving me time to reflect and copy down pages of quotes.

Gornick focuses on personal narratives but I would happily recommend this book to other nonfiction writers as well. Here are a few highlights:

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
by Vivian Gornick

“Every work [of literature] has both a situation and a story. 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.”

“The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom or rather the movement toward it that counts. “Good writing has two characteritics,” a gifted teacher of writing once said. “It’s alive on the page and the reader is persuaded that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.”

“Memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. 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. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand.”

“Looking for the inner context makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance; places a writer’s thought and feeling; imposes shape and reveals inner purpose; the thing that is invariably being addressed when one says to any writer of imagination: but what is it about?

What I’m Reading This Week

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
by Meghan Daum.

Her goal is to discuss topics we tend to not speak of: the death of a relative with whom we have an unhealthy relationship, her desire to be seen as ‘butch’ and contemplating lesbianism while not being a lesbian. For the most part I am enjoying this book though at times find it self-indulgent. Maybe because I don’t think the death of a pet is the same (or worse) than the death of a loved one. Or because she delves into name-dropping. She admits this but that acknowledgement fails to remove the ring of elitism and condescension. Well written and some of the essays are superb and worth reading. But in the end, I just didn’t love every essay.

Warriors: Life and Death Among the Somalis
by Gerald Hanley

Of course I am biased, I’m fascinated by all things Somali. But I really enjoy this book. It is a memoir of pre-civil war Somalia and is both horrifying and hilarious, often at the same time. I’m reading it for the third time. The Eland series provides loads of interesting books from unique regions of the world.

What are you reading this week?