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.

Using Fiction in Memoir: Maxine Hong Kinston’s The Woman Warrior

woman warrior222

 

Maxine Hong Kingston uses fiction to heighten the poignancy and power of her memoir, The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts.  Throughout the book, Kingston uses not only her own memories, but also the stories she’s been told to form for the reader a picture of her formative years and the tension she feels as she creates an identity for herself.  She uses fictional elements to speculate, draw meaning, and show her reader the effects that stories (whether they be true or not) come to bear on one’s identity.

Kingston opens her book with “No Name Woman,” a story about her aunt.  But this isn’t just any family story.  It’s one that is shrouded in mystery and silence.  Because of this secrecy, Kingston must resort to speculating to fill in the details of this story.  It’s important that she understand the details because this story is one that her mother uses as a cautionary tale.  In ruminating about the details of this story, Kingston comes up with several possible variations even ones that she admits are improbable and don’t fit.  She wrestles with understanding the details of the story so that she can find “ancestral help” (8).  However, this speculation has come to bear on Kingston’s understanding of herself as a Chinese-American woman.  Kingston shows us through these variations of the story how this family narrative has shaped her understanding of many things.  It shaped the way she understood her relationship with her parents, and with her extended family.  It shaped the way Kingston understands what it means to be Chinese and what it means to be a woman.  It shaped her relationships with men and her ideas about differing standards of beauty.  Ultimately, it shaped how Kingston came to understand her own identity.  In sharing these different versions of the story, Kingston shares with her readers her process for dealing with the story and shows the reader the impact that both the story and the silence surrounding the story have had on her.

In “Shaman” Kingston takes her storytelling even further from anything that could be seen as the “objective reality” that we normally associate with the genre of nonfiction.  The chapter starts with a ghost story from the point of view of Kingston’s mother as a schoolgirl.  In it, her mother actually wrestles with a ghost before exorcising it from the school.  In a genre bent on “honesty” and “truth,” stories like this one can be difficult for a reader to swallow.  But Kingston uses the story to show how she came to see herself living in a world full of ghosts. She says that “America has been so full of machines and ghosts — Taxi Ghosts, Bus Ghosts, Police Ghosts, Fire Ghosts, Meter Reader Ghosts, Tree Trimming Ghosts, Five-and-Dime Ghosts. Once upon a time the world was so thick with ghosts, I could hardly breathe; I could hardly walk, limping my way around the White Ghosts and their cars” (96-97). This discussion of ghosts shows the importance of Kingston’s childhood understanding of being “other” in America and allows the reader to feel the otherworldliness of that experience.  Describing that feeling and the day-to-day happenings in her life alone would not have given the same emotional impact to the reader.  By using these fictional elements, Kingston lets her reader feel along with her the supernatural, the fear, the separateness that comes with understanding herself in relation to her surroundings that way.

Kingston’s fictional storytelling reaches its apex in “White Tigers,” in which she spends nearly twenty pages telling the story of Fa Mu Lan.  However, she does not tell the story in a detached, here’s-a-story-from-my-childhood sort of way.  Nor does she tell it in a let-me-tell-you-a-historical-story-of-my heritage way.  Instead, she tells the story in first person, as she experienced it herself when she “couldn’t tell where the stories left off and dreams began” (19).  In telling this story in first person, the reader can begin to understand the impact of this story on a young Kingston and can feel the expectations and potential that Kingston would have felt as a child.  It also brings home her point when she says, “My American life has been such a disappointment” (45).  Because the reader has seen the story of Fa Mu Lan from the eyes of Kingston herself, the reader can understand on a deeper level the sense of disappointment that the author must have felt.  Finally, Kingston shows how important this story and stories in general have been in her life when she compares herself to Fa Mu Lan, “What we have in common are the words at our backs” (53).  Here she suggests that while they do not have the shared experience of going to war in ancient China, the stories that they have in common unite them.  Because of this, Kingston can use Fa Mu Lan’s story to come to a deeper understanding of herself, her experiences, and her expectations.

Throughout the book, Kingston tells her reader about listening to the talk-story of her family and the ways in which these talk-stories came to bear on her understanding of herself. She writes, “When we Chinese girls listened to the adults talk-story, we learned that we failed if we grew up to be but wives or slaves” (19). More than just telling her reader the importance of these stories on her life and memories, she shows us by telling us the stories, too. They have more weight than we usually give fictional stories because we can see how Kingston was influenced by these stories. Because we are told the stories as well, we as readers can also be influenced by them and therefore relate to Kingston and her experiences.

Though it may seem that including these non-factual stories in her memoir undermines the validity of the truth of Kingston’s memories, it actually has the effect of giving a fuller picture of her dreams, expectations, disappointments, and fears.  Without these stories, it would be more difficult for readers to understand the complexities of Kingston’s experience growing up between cultures.  These stories allow the reader to feel the dissonance between Kingston’s Chinese upbringing and her American existence.  In the same way, when writing nonfiction, we can use fictional elements and stories to give the reader a fuller picture of our experiences.  Fictional stories often hold weight in the factual world, coming to bear on the ways that people understand themselves, the places around them, and their relationships with society at large.  Using these fictional stories to give a fuller picture is especially useful in memoirs.  If we are trying to understand and to help our readers understand our experiences, the stories we tell ourselves can give more insight into how we’ve developed and come to understand ourselves.

 

*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.

How to Make Memoir Meaningful: Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories

hampl

 

Patricia Hampl’s I Could Tell You Stories: A Sojourn into Memory is a thoughtful, compelling book. Twice as I was reading it, I felt an overwhelming urge to put down the book and write. Both times the writing and feelings were so moving that I was brought to tears. It is a gathering of thoughts and questions on memory and memoir.

 

I will admit, I am skeptical of memory and wary of memoir. To me, memories are so malleable, so constructed (See Radio Lab’s episode on Memory and Forgetting.) that I’ve never felt that I could trust them as a source of truth in writing. And as much as I’ve been wanting to write more nonfiction, I cringe at the idea of writing memoir. Isn’t it just navel-gazing? Aren’t there some truths that are better portrayed through fiction?

 

Hampl’s Stories addresses both these points directly. In fact, these are the themes that the essays in the book pivot around. The book opens with an iteration of one of her childhood memories, which Hampl then examines for accuracy. In doing so, she points out the several lies in her story and allows herself to explore why her memory would make such deceptions. This sets the tone for her essays, which do not claim a factual, historical truth but instead dig for something deeper.

 

She follows this up with ruminations about why people write memoirs and the importance of memory. She presents the possibility for memoir as a political act, a witness to the world in which it takes place. Instead of memoir as a focus on the self within a larger picture, Hampl offers the option to think of memoir as a focus on the larger picture through the lens of the self. She uses the Vietnam War, communist Czechoslovakia, St. Augustine’s Confessions, and Anne Frank’s diary to illuminate the different ways that constructing memories can be political acts. This connection of the personal to the political is one way that memoirs can rise above navel-gazing and become relevant throughout history.

 

She also addresses one of the biggest problems that memoir writers have: how to fold people you know and love into your stories. In her poignant last essay of the book, she leaves her readers with a question mark. She examines the ways that she has dealt with this issue especially in regards to her mother.  In the end, the reader leaves feeling that Hampl is still wrestling with how to understand the tension that exists between her relationships and her writing.

 

One of the most compelling things about this collection is Hampl’s stunning honesty. One might think that a memoir about memoir (a meta-memoir, even) might be the consummate act of navel-gazing. But Hampl’s honesty keeps the book from veering off into that realm. She points out the lies in her own memories, examines herself under glaring light, and writes openly about her struggles with various topics. It is this honesty that allows her to connect her own stories with the larger world.

 

*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.

Reading for Writers: Eva Saulitis’ into great silence

Toward Larger Truths:

Using Poetry in Creative Nonfiction

“Alaska. As a college student, a dream for me of blue-white tundra, wolves, caribou, moose, indigenous hunters: wilderness. A dream of emptiness, silence” (3).  With this first line in her first chapter of Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Saulitis presents her reader with an idealized, poetic view of the place she is about to bring us.  With these images and sentence fragments, she paints us a lyrical picture of the place we will come to know and study through her.  Though she writes about scientific research and the imminent extinction of a group of transient killer whales, Saulitis uses poetry and poetic language throughout her account to allow her reader to feel her connection to Prince William Sound and to experience that same level of connection and loss.

Throughout into great silence, Saulitis weaves poetry and lyrical language throughout the text.  She begins her book with an epigraph of poetry by Dylan Thomas.  She also begins her prologue with lines of poetry by W.S. Merwin.  With these two epigraphs, Saulitis sets the stage for a book about science which the reader knows will not be a typical research book.  Though into great silence recounts her days as a field biologist studying whales and includes much of her research, she chooses to begin her book and her prologue with poetry.  This shows her reader that she will be narrating this story not only through the lens of a scientist, but also through the lens of a poet.

Saulitis continues to use epigraphs to insert poetry into her narrative throughout the book.  In particular, she uses the epigraphs to frame points of especially poignant emotion. For example, she begins Chapter 18, “Beast and Beauty,” with two lines of poetry by Cyrus Cassells.  This is a small cue to the reader that this chapter will be one of the most evocative in the book.  In this chapter, Eva slowly realizes the true effects of the Valdez oil spill.  As she says, “Every zooming skiff, every blackened beach, every harassment of whales triggered ire, until it seemed the oil was inside me” (92).  She goes on to compare the scene to a “war zone” (92).  This realization that some of the worst fears of the researchers are becoming reality is one of the most emotional moments in the book and Saulitis uses Cassells’ poetry to highlight that.

Saulitis uses a poetic epigraph again to begin the last section of the book, titled, like the book itself, “Into Great Silence.”  On page 179, Saulitis begins Part 4 of her book with a poetic quote from Li-Young Lee.  This section of the book is by far the most emotional.  Saulitis begins to leave her day-to-day accounts of research behind and allows herself to ruminate on the emotions and repercussions connected to the loss that she is witnessing and the grief that she is feeling.  She becomes more introspective and more speculative, trading in scientific research for meditations on death, loss, and ultimately hope.

Saulitis also chooses to begin her second to last chapter with poetry by Peggy Shumaker.  In this chapter, Chapter 47, Saulitis begins to write in present tense.  This is a chapter in which she uses some of the most introspective, reflective language.  It is in this chapter that she revisits her battle with cancer and relates it back to the story of the whales.  She reflects on the process of writing the book.  At the very end of the chapter we see Saulitis as the author who began the book  meeting herself as present author directly and telling us how her views have changed.  Not only does she begin the chapter with poetry, she rewrites the poetry as the title of the chapter.  The poem that she uses ends with the line, “In a language lost to us/god is singing” (239).  She chooses to name this chapter “In a Language Lost to Us, Eyak Is Singing.”  These poetic devices set her reader up for a very poignant ending.

Saulitis does not only use the poetry of others in her account of her whale research and the loss of the pod.  She also brings her own poetry into the retelling.  This happens most often in Saulitis’ use of letters to her parents and her own journal entries from the time.  These things give the reader a penetrating look into the narrator’s relationship with the world around her.  Her letters are often strikingly evocative.  Saulitis makes a real effort to pull those around her into her world.  For example, in her letter to her parents, she writes, “The hemlocks, gray-barked and bearded with lichen, remind me of ancient men in Tai Chi poses.  Gnarled, wind-scoured, half alive, they seem to hold each cry, each gasp of the Sound under oil, under boats, under trash, under storms, like memory given form.  When I lean my body against one, I’m dizzy from their knowledge” (80).  This kind of lyrical language does not just describe the place to the reader, but makes the reader also feel the connection and emotion attached to this place as if we are there with Saulitis and feeling the same sense of connection and attachment.

The emotion and passion with which she writes to her parents also comes through in her journal entries.  Amid a myriad of observations about wildlife, one journal entry muses, “If I sat here all day, what would fill these pages?  Out of nowhere, a helicopter.  Clouds sink and rise, wind rises and stills, the air becomes moister and cooler.  It’s impossible to predict what will happen next” (135).  This kind of imagery and introspection is incredibly effective.  It is clear in both her journal and in many of her correspondences that she is of that place.  There’s an immediacy about those passages that brings the reader into the experience.  In these instances, the reader can feel the place and Saulitis’ connection to it in a very powerful way.  Additionally, the speculation that she engages in here allows the reader to feel the possibility that the place holds.

This kind of lyrical language is juxtaposed with more straightforward accounts of her scientific studies.  She gives not only detached scientific explanations, but also an emotional sense of loss.  This juxtaposition comes to bear on both the factual portions and the poetic portions of Saulitis’ writing.  The lyrical portions are given a sense of authority when they are seen next to the research of a scientist who has been studying the place and the whales for years.  The scientific portions are made much more poignant and the reader connects with them much more when they are placed alongside poetic accounts.  Saulitis gives us not only facts on a page, but these facts are given meaning and weight through her use of poetry and poetic language.  Rather than undermining the validity of the scientific research that Saulitis did, it intensifies it.  The poetry and the science both become more authentic and more true.

Saulitis becomes most lyrical and introspective at the very end of her book.  She begins her last chapter writing:

Fine mist falling, fog down to the decks of boats in the harbor. On the breakwater, shags and herons cluster, hunch-shouldered against gusts.  I see them through the spaces in his ribs.  I stare down into the cradle of his rib cage, basket of bones, hoop of barrel staves, empty frame… I want to crawl inside, huddle at his skull’s base, a dark, secret place, to listen (241).

The strength of this writing is in the way it plays with images and lyricism.  We can feel the sense of longing and loss inherent in the way Saulitis talks about the space between ribs and wanting to crawl inside.  But we can also feel the sense of hope and connection in the resiliency of the hunch-shouldered herons and listening.  This echoes the feelings and imagery that she uses at the very end of the book in which she writes, “That what’s broken can be mended. That what’s shattered can be made whole.  That what’s damaged can be repaired. That the end of the story is ‘and then –‘  And then there was Eyak. Always and forever. Amen” (245).  In this, she closes the book much in the same way she began it, through the lens of a poet, someone who felt on a very special level a connection to a group of whales and a place and wants to bring that connection to the reader.

As writers of nonfiction, we can use these devices in our own writing as well.  Like Saulitis, we can include poetic epigraphs to heighten the poignancy of our nonfiction stories.  We can also use poetic language, such as metaphors, to share not only the factual details of our experiences but also the emotional facets.  We can juxtapose the lyrical, emotional language of our areas of expertise or personal experience to give our readers a fuller, more true picture of the events.  The use of poetic language in nonfiction can serve to enhance the experiences we are sharing with our readers.  Evocative, lyrical language can help take stories off the page and make them more visceral and relatable for our readers.

into great silence is also available on amazon.com.

Sharing: The Widow’s Pension from Postcards from Thursday

I was completely enthralled with this poem by Alison over at Postcards from Thursday and just needed to share it.  Enjoy!

 

Grandma's hands

The Widow’s Pension

A dead finch in each hand,
bile and memory heaving out,
years, decades of speaking loudly
and weeping into book binding,
though she once ached to be left
with scratches along her ears,
to be the vandal, to touch
the bottom of the river.

She’s lived her life one miracle short,
but, for herself, she will say at least this—
she has seen beauty in a quilt of torn blouses,
found that it’s the slow pour that spills over.

She trampled bees on the night when she woke
and left that bed. No leaf of Eve, no more blessed thing.
Radiant is all her grayness.

 

Alison, who writes Postcards from Thursday, also includes original photography on her blog.  The above photo is one of her creations as well.  Check out her moving photography and poetry.  It’s well worth a look!

Reaping Rewards: Word Flood in Yemassee

YemasseeCover20v2 web

 

 

Here’s another non-rejection that I’ve racked up from my original Submission Bonanza! 

Word Flood,” my first published creative nonfiction piece, just came out in Yemassee.

I’ve pasted the original text below for your reading enjoyment!

 

Her words sank.  Not quickly like an anchor, or with a splash like a rock.  Instead as she spoke, her words fluttered in the air, held afloat by the humidity.  They tickled earlobes, in a language half a world away. Pieces of ideas curled with the wind among tendrils of jasmine, leaving a heavy scent wafting through the city.  Nouns and verbs together toyed with bodhi leaves, pulling them along as they flitted to the ground.  They landed gently on the Chao Phraya, quivering on the surface of the river and leaving ripples too small to be noticed.  Amongst water hyacinth and coconuts they floated, gathering silt and absorbing the wetness of the city.  In this way, the words gained weight and began to drown.

Before long, they swam in the wake of snakefish and nestled between the scales of water monitors.  The more weight they gathered, the more they were immersed, the harder it was to see them. The light had trouble reaching them between algae and waste and even apsaras would be hard pressed to find them.  They landed on the river bed, stirring up the bottom and throwing silt into an already murky darkness.  Covered.

And soon all her pen could do was draw the curves of the paths her words had taken, as if trying to retrace their steps.  Searching between the roots of ficus trees and the stamens of hibiscus for where she had misplaced them.  A world made of tendrils and bubbles, floating in a silent and wordless black and white.  Sea horses and leaves and turtles all swirled with a silent current.  Owls became nok hoo, knock, who? and lost their edges and their names.  Questions were gone and statements no longer made sense.  The world churned as if everything were from the point of view of those lost words, staring up at far away surface of a river that always was moving.

And then there was a flood.  The water seeped slowly, climbing up through sewers and along the streets.  The river rose past dams and sandbags bringing pythons into houses and buoys into cars.  It brought everything from its depths, decay, sand, and her words, which huddled against a curb and waited for the waters to recede.  After months, the river left, burrowing back into its banks but leaving its refuse to dry in the sun.  The sediment cracked and caked.  Mosquito larvae dried like tiny raisins.  The decomposing river sludge made banana trees greener and left seedling strangler figs sprouting along sidewalks.  And, as if growing out from cracked pavement, her words dried, too, finally able to breathe and soak up a little bit of the warm winter sun.