Finding the “I” in Creative Nonfiction: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story

situation and story

 

Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story examines what makes a good piece of nonfiction. She writes, “Every work of literature has 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” (p. 13). Gornick examines several essays and memoirs to explore how the situation and the story work in creative nonfiction. She stresses that we cannot just tell the situation, but must also know what the story is that we are trying to tell.

Finding out what the story is in the piece then allows the writer to organize their writing around this insight. We can then look at the narrative line of the work and tie this to the wisdom that compels it. Gornick pushes us to ask: “Who is speaking? What is being said? What is the relation between the two?” How does the insight gained come to bear on the structure of the narrative? Is the reader along for the same journey of discovery as the speaker? Or does the reader know the outcome at the beginning and watch the narrator struggle with it?

She looks especially at the narrator of these nonfiction pieces to see what they can tell us about how we can coax the story out of our own experiences. We don’t always have to know who we are, she says, but we have to know who we are at the moment of writing. This is an important insight. It is easy to think of the nonfiction self as a given. We could assume that we are cohesive selves with only one voice and when we write nonfiction, we use that voice. But this is far from true. Our voice and perspective change with different situations and with time. Which aspect of yourself is telling the story? Gornick suggests crafting a persona based on the insight that drives the piece. What is the story of this situation? Which aspect of yourself is best suited to tell that story? Answering these questions will allow us to know who we are at the moment of writing.

One aspect of this that really stuck with me was Gornick’s discussion of how to treat subjects. She insists that writers of nonfiction must treat their subjects, including themselves, with empathy and dimension. Is it true that you are completely innocent and your foe is all monster? Gornick pushes us as writers to make things more complicated, more dynamic than that. She asks us to look at situations from multiple perspectives to get at the stories. This includes looking at ourselves from multiple perspectives. We can’t just rely on being the hero or heroine of our own story, fighting the forces of evil. That story’s been told and doesn’t resonate as honest. After all, we’re all more complicated than that, aren’t we?

 

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing.

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Prompt: Writing Roulette: Plot Generators to Spice up Your Literary Life

 

 

 

Need a little spice and adventure in your writing life?  Did you make a New Year’s Resolution to write more and now your motivation is waning?  Did you join the My 500 Words Challenge, but can’t figure out what to write about?  Maybe you and the muse have just gotten into a rut and need a little more passion in your relationship.

Perhaps it’s time to leave things up to chance, play a little writing roulette and see where it takes you.  There is a huge array of plot generators out there, which will give you anything from a random sentence to hypothetical scenarios, to symbolism, to stories complete with weather and villains.  Here are some fun tools that might help get you through a little bit of writer’s block:

The Big Huge Thesaurus Story Plot Generator: 5.1 million possible story plots.  Just click the link for six possibilities.  Not inspired by those?  Just hit refresh until you find one that gets your fire going.  This one actually started me on a novel.

Plot Generator UK: This one takes a little bit more of your own input into consideration.  Choose a genre.  The options are Romance, Crime, Teen Vampire, Mystery, and Song Lyrics.  Or (my personal favorite) you can recreate a lost Bronte Sisters novel, complete with a well-to-do hero and a poor, lower class hero and a weather description. For this one, you can choose the names, jobs, descriptions, weapons, and hometowns of your characters, or the generator will suggest them for you.

Writing Exercises UK: This generator gives you characters, a setting, a situation, and a theme and you can put them together to create your plot.  If you don’t like one of the elements you’ve been given, just hit the button again to get a new one.  One of the exciting things about this site is that it also has other writing exercises, like a random first line, random title, subject or random words to use.  Very, very useful if you just need a little kickstart.

Seventh Sanctum Story Generator:  Another one where you can choose the genre, this generator gives more in-depth scenarios in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Modern, or Free-for-All categories.  These plots are interesting because of the details that they contain.  This website also has a What-If-inator and a Symbolitron, which might be my favorite find in all of the plot creators!

Hopefully this will be enough to get your writing juices flowing.  If any of these work out for you, please share the results with us!

 

Creative Commons love to Adam Lerner for the awesome photo!

Prompts to Start the New Year

 

 

I always feel like there’s an excitement in the air this time of year, a freshness that’s just waiting to be plucked.  The new year is pregnant with possibility and is just waiting for us to snatch it up.  In celebration of that, here are some revisited prompts to get your creativity and inspiration going.  Enjoy!

The Encyclopedia Game

Myths in New Places

Anagrams

Reimagining History: Rasputin

When the Goddesses Come Out

Write Fast

 

Creative Commons love to http://www.flickr.com/photos/bartmaguire/ for the photo! Thanks!

Prompt: Anagrams

 

 

 

So, in my constant search for new and ever more inventive ways to procrastinate on my writing, I stumbled across this little tool:

http://wordsmith.org/anagram/

The Internet Anagram Server (a.k.a. I, Rearrangement Servant) will, for sure, provide you with hours on end of dilly-dallying that is not writing.

It can also, however, provide you with some really interesting word combinations that make for the start of a really interesting piece of writing.

Put your name, or your character’s name, or your dog’s name, or whatever into the Anagram Server and see what kind of unusual word strands you get.  Can you make them make sense in a piece of writing?

My own name brings up some pretty great combinations, such as:

Barely Crayon Jamming

Cry, Glimmer Joy Banana

Join Almanac Berry Gym (which I’m sure exists somewhere in New England)

Jar Me My Cannibal Orgy

and (my roommate’s personal favorite) Bare Clammy Ninja Orgy

 

Make sure to use the advanced options, which will allow you to make anagrams with words you particularly like.  One of my favorite words was Magical and I will admit to also putting Orgy into the “required words” slot.

Anyone come up with anything good?

 

 

 

Creative Commons love to http://www.flickr.com/photos/bartmaguire/ for the photo! Thanks!

Prompt: Rasputin

One of my favorite themes is re-imagining history.  The stories of history have so many holes of details waiting to be filled and re-envisaged.  There is so little we know about most of history, about the people and the details.

It is, after all, a story.  We may piece together the best we can using clues, sleuthing like backwards-looking Sherlock Holmes.  But the real life of a story is in the details and often times when it comes to the past, the details are mere conjecture.  That conjecture is necessary to bring history to life.

Also, history holds great characters.  Take Rasputin, for example.  Lover of the Russian Queen. A pious figure in Russian history, and also Russia’s greatest love machine, apparently.  These characters themselves can make incredible stories, ala Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Who are some of your favorite characters in history?  How can they be brought to bear on the story telling of today?  What kinds of situations would you like to see them in?

Also, this song is super dance-able.

 

 

 

 

You can see me trying my own hand at this prompt here:  https://lightningdroplets.wordpress.com/2012/03/08/akhenaten-winter-2012/