Writing as a Process of Self-Investigation: Exploring Vivian Gornick's "The Situation and the Story"

It was remarkable to me how excellent were relations between this narrator and this narration. The speaker never lost sight of why she was speaking—or, perhaps more important, of who was speaking. Of the various selves at her disposal (she was, after all, many people—a daughter, a lover, a bird-watcher, a New Yorker), she knew and didn’t forget that the only proper self to include was the one that had been apprenticed. That was the self in whom this story resided.
— From "The Situation and the Story" by Vivian Gornick

In “The Situation and the Story,” Vivian Gornick writes about the art of writing memoir and essay. She emphasizes the importance of a reliable narrator in such pieces, as opposed to fiction-writing, which lends itself to narrators with skewed interpretations of reality. In writing my own work and reading that of others, I find it is harder to compartmentalize our "selves" and create a narration built on clarity in the way that Gornick describes. We often muddy the clarity in our personal essays with irrelevant anecdotes and details and we forget that, in reality, our intersecting selves have overlapping lives. In the construction of our narratives, we include details that we find relevant to our whole being, but fail to see that they may not be relevant to the story we're currently trying to tell.


In memoir and essay, it is impossible to separate the moods, opinions, triumphs, and pitfalls of the narrator from the story itself. They are interwoven and one; all the more important that the reader trusts the narrator, and that the narrator is self-aware.


Source: Amazon

Source: Amazon

When I was young and frequently made mixed cds, I had a few favorite songs that somehow made it onto each one no matter what mood I was initially going for. It felt, then, like those special songs were part of my identity; they had to be included in every playlist story I wanted to tell, even if the narrative didn’t quite make sense. Now, as a writer, I often write with the tone of the mood I’m in, rather than the mood the piece calls for. Or I’ll include a detail to the story because of a personal linked memory, despite its irrelevance to the narrative.

When she writes that “[the] process of alteration is at once the conduit for the story being told and, in some important way, the story itself. We are in the presence, in each instance, of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows—moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self-knowledge”(Gornick 36), she writes about the progression of tone and the narrator’s position within the story. In memoir and essay, it is impossible to separate the moods, opinions, triumphs, and pitfalls of the narrator from the story itself. They are interwoven and one; all the more important that the reader trusts the narrator, and that the narrator is self-aware.


When we push beyond simple confession and instead focus on building a narrative that uncovers, dusts off, and clarifies the innermost details of the subject, we engage the text with its readers; the emotional subtext of the story becomes universal.


Gornick describes the writing process as an answering of a series of questions, rather than a freewrite followed by line-edits. These questions include who or which part of the self is telling the story, from which angle, and to what end? In answering these questions we learn to build the framework of the narratives we want to tell and only after building a solid foundation will it become obvious which smaller details and aesthetic flourishes belong.

I take solace in the fact that even my favorite essay writers—Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, Audre Lorde, Rebecca Solnit, and Vivian Gornick, herself—have had to edit down their work and fine-tune their creative process. They, too, have to sort through their “selves” and find the particular persona they need to speak from to tell the story. Even in frustration, even when I’m asking myself questions aloud and trying to separate out my “selves” and wondering what that might even mean, I’m not alone; I am, in fact, in good company. 

“The Situation and the Story” is a call to approach writing as a process of self-investigation. When we push beyond simple confession and instead focus on building a narrative that uncovers, dusts off, and clarifies the innermost details of the subject, we engage the text with its readers; the emotional subtext of the story becomes universal. Empathy is fostered. Understanding is found. Both the reader and the writer are changed.