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 The Situation and the Story 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. May contain affiliate links.