The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick (Books 2022, 18)

On my MA course, in the Creative Nonfiction module, we were assigned the first chapter of this as one of our readings. It intrigued me enough that I ordered a copy.

Pages of Hackney had to order it from the US, and it took a long time to arrive. The module (and possibly the course, though I don’t actually think so) had finished by the time it arrived.

It took me even longer to finish reading it, despite it being a very slim volume.

It’s subtitled ‘The Art of Personal Memoir’. She starts one section by saying:

Thirty years ago people who thought they had a story to tell sat down to write a novel. Today they sit down to write a memoir.

And it was published in 2001, so she was seeing a change since the seventies. That may be even more true now, as creative nonfiction, memoir, the confessional story: that’s a huge publishing category.

But I’m not sure to what extent this book will help people who want to sit down and write one.

Gornick likes to teach by example. I would estimate that between 40 and 50% of the words in this book are other people’s. All properly cited and credited, of course, and the relevant permissions listed at the back. But she uses huge long quotes.

Nothing inherently wrong with that, of course. How else do we first learn to write at all, other than by the examples of things we read? But I felt she spent too much time quoting the examples, and not enough explaining why she chose those. I don’t know, maybe use smaller examples, or break the big quotes up with interjections on technique.

Early in the book she talks about the nonfiction writer:

Here the the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses [sic] and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public … Think about how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself

The casual synecdoche of ‘couch’ to mean ‘therapy’ or ‘analysis’ amused me. So commonplace must analysis be in her circles, that she assumes everyone knows what ‘lying down on the couch’ is like. Whereas most of us, I would guess, only know about it from seeing it in films.


Saved Life

In International Clash Day I mentioned a life-changing song: “Wasted Life,” by Stiff Little Fingers. SLF’s anti-military song literally changed my life; or its potential direction, at least. I was probably moving in an anti-war kind of direction anyway, to be fair, but it was definitely a trigger point.

People say — or used they to, at least — that a song couldn’t change your life. By comparison, I don’t think there was ever a similar tendency to say that a book couldn’t change a person’s life. I suspect that is down to their comparative sizes: it seems respectable for something the size of a novel to have a major impact on a human’s psyche, while a three-minute song? Not so much.

Although if it were merely length, then people wouldn’t have complained if you said an album changed your life. I’m not sure that anyone ever said that,1 but I suspect that if they had, their statement would have been pooh-poohed just as much as the same claim for a song.

At this point I feel I ought to quote Springsteen, giving the opposite view:

We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school

he sings in “No Surrender.” Hyperbole, certainly, but there is a core of truth to it: the truth of the feeling you can get from listening to a great song.

With “Wasted Life” the feeling for me was of sudden crystallisation, or realisation. I had, for some years, been saying that I wanted to be pilot, join the RAF. This was before the horrors of the Gulf War, or for that matter the Balkans. Though it was in the heart of the Cold War, and British soldiers were stationed in Northern Ireland during the troubles — though not so much RAF staff, I would think.

But I was blind to all that, brought up as I was on a diet of Second World War films, Commando comics, and Airfix models of warplanes. I had, in short, a thoroughly romanticised view of war. And I just wanted to fly.

But I didn’t want to kill. I had always known that, I’m sure. But two lines of that one song made it real for me:

Stuff their fucking armies
Killing isn’t my idea of fun2

And that was all it took. I remember that it was a while before I could tell my parents that I had changed my plans. Perhaps because they would have asked why, and I didn’t want to have to explain it. Maybe because I thought they’d be disappointed. I’m sure my Mum wasn’t. My Dad kind of was: “But you were going to be a Spanish-speaking pilot,” he said. He had always been slightly amused that my school taught half of us Spanish, instead of the then-much-more-conventional French.

A life can hinge on such a small moment.


  1. Somebody must have, of course. ↩︎

  2. In an amusing followup to recent thoughts, I originally wrote that as “army,” but find that lyrics sites think this plural too. Correctly, of course. ↩︎