by: Clinton Crockett Peters
Vivian Gornick is a one person Renaissance, writing on eminent women scientists, feminism, civil activism, anarchism, and this country’s greatest authors. She is a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Phillip Lopate has called her, “One of the most vital and indispensable essayists of our cultural moment.” Her short, zippy, craft-book that’s not a craft-book, The Situation and The Story, has been oft-assigned to nonfictionists, the terminology of “the situation” and “the story” de rigeur parlance in workshops across the country.
Born to New York left-wingers in the 1930s, Gornick’s mom was a former communist organizer and her father died when she was just thirteen. Gornick was a journalist for the Village Voice in the seventies, and has amassed personal essays and literary and cultural criticism to add to her dozen books and counting. Her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, a staple in the nonfiction cannon, precipitated the memoir craze of the 1990s and 2000s, exceeding it with her biting insight, novel-esque scenes, and studied, penetrating reflection. In May, Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City came out. It has been described as a “narrative collage,” that “bookends” Fierce Attachments.
Vivian Gornick: Well, we’d have to go back to Fierce Attachments. When I wrote it, I was thinking about my mother, the woman who lived in the tenement across from us, and how these two women together made me a woman. I wrote forty pages and got stuck. I realized I had a lot of unfinished business with my mother. So I sat there for six months not knowing what to do, completely miserable. And then one day my mother calls me and tells me a story. I thought this was funny and because I was stuck and didn’t know how to go forward, I decided to write this little story. But I realized I had to set it up because nobody would understand what it means if I just tell the anecdote. So I wrote a scene of us walking and her telling the story. And in that way Fierce Attachments became a collage of tales told from the past in this Bronx tenement I was growing up in and then my mother and I walking the streets of New York.
I stumbled on this style that was congenial to me, the collage, which was a difficult thing to do, because a collage works only if all the pieces are in the right place and all the transactions get you to the next place. That may sound easy, but I’m here to tell you, it’s real hard.
Just so, I wrote and rewrote this new tiny book about fifty times. It started off as a tale I was going to tell about my friend Leonard. I’ve had this friend Leonard in New York for many years and always thought our relationship was paradigmatic of the city. I’m a divorced woman, and he’s gay. And we each live alone and have gone through the politics of the city. But as I went on, I realized I had a situation but not really a story. I could not carry this on into a book. And I had to rediscover the city, which has always been gold for me. I walk the streets of New York City like an anthropologist. The city has always given me more sustenance, more comfort than anybody I know. So once I had the city in my mind as well as Leonard and I, I began to think about friendship. The three strands became this memoir.
CCP: Thinking about how you worked for the Village Voice for nine years, how do you feel that has influenced your work now?
VG: Oh, that was as strong influence. At the Village Voice I was a polemical journalist. I developed very quickly into a feminist journalist and they let that happen because polemics and feminists were what they were all about. That’s what the counter-culture was. Because of that I developed a point of view. My politics led me quickly to see that everywhere in the world I saw sexism. So I walked out in the street and picked a leaf off a tree and somehow managed to turn it into an article about sexism. Whenever I went, to a movie, to dinner, took a walk on the street, had an exchange at the drug store, I saw sexism. So this became a point of view. What made me a writer was the realization that I wasn’t going to hammer the reader into seeing the world as I did. I had to dramatize it. I had to make in persuasive. I had to find ways to move into what I ultimately wanted the reader to see. When I got tired of that, got tired of being a journalist and was hungry to enter myself instead of the world, I had the experience of knowing the value of a point of view. That became a leading element of my development as a writer, the recognition that every piece of writing has to have a point of view to make it strong.
CCP: May I ask a similar question about criticism, about your work with feminism and how that’s a lasting influence on you?
VG: Oh, no doubt. I will say this, over the years, there’s no question that there’s always a feminist speaking in my writing. There’s no question feminism has influenced how I’ve seen the world immensely. But as a literary critic, I’ve made it a point of honor never to sacrifice the book to the politics. I’m sure that my feminism is the source of many of my judgments, but otherwise I hope I’m faithful to the writing.
CCP: I love what you say about creating a point of view; it reminds me of your friend Philip Lopate talking about creating a narrator personae and how different books need different personas, that makes a lot of sense to me. I’m wondering why you think people have that need to recognize personas outside the text.
VG: There is no literary personae outside of the text. What do you mean?
CCP: I’m thinking of a story you’ve told about a woman at a dinner who said, “You’re not the Vivian in that book.” Why do you think she wanted you to not be you, that she wanted you to be the person in the book?
VG: Well, that’s the oldest thing in the world! It’s true for anyone whose ever met a novelist. Once at a public lecture to a group of women engineers in Houston, I was reading from Fierce Attachments. They were all wearing blue suits with skirts instead of pants. This woman, thin-faced, blonde, raises her hand and says, “If I come to New York, can I take a walk with your mama?” I said to her, “You do not want to take a walk with my mother. You want to take a walk with the woman in the pages of this book. She is not the same. Do you know how much dead time I had to put in to make that woman interesting on the page?” Everybody longs for the writer of the book to be a hero and to be a movie star and to be what they are in the book. It is the power of literature speaking. But when I was at the dinner table, I was everything that I am now. I was a million things and many of them were not palatable. At Houston, it was a long evening and I shot my mouth off at everything, and the woman who asked about my “mama” sat there getting more dismayed because I also wasn’t the Vivian in the book.
CCP: Did I get the story right that your mother, for Fierce Attachments, went on the tour with you?
VG: She didn’t go on the tour, but in the course of her daily life, walking around New York City, she would go around signing the book. I said, “Ma, you didn’t write that book! You can’t sign it.” She goes, “Well, without me, there was no book.” She was hopeless, uncontrollable.
CCP: I like your spin on the Joan Didion quote about how writers are always selling people out. You add she doesn’t mean it maliciously, but as a way to serve one’s writing. Could you talk about using others to speak for your projects?
VG: What she meant was the obvious, which is that you’re not more faithful to the model for your characters than to the use your characters have in a narrative. People used to ask me always, cringing, “Was your mother alive when you wrote this?” She was. She would stop dead in the middle of a walk and say something like, “Why are you writing this, so the whole world will know you hate me?” Then I would go home and be paralyzed for three days and wouldn’t be able to write. And then I would recover myself and realize that my intentions were honest. I was not writing to trash her or to aggrandize myself. I was writing to dramatize this fierce attachment. That honesty would remind me that this was my writing material, my experience, my life, and that she, in this project, is only a player. She is not the cause of anything. I am not writing to even scores. I am certainly not writing Mommie Dearest. I am not writing to accuse her or to see myself as a victim. And I would have to remember that and believe again in the honesty of the project.
Nevertheless, when she read it, she was very childish about it. One day she’d be very proud, and the next day very violent. One day she’d say, “You only told the truth.” The next day, she’d say, “Now you’ve held me up to ridicule!” I thought, “Screw this. She’s a baby, and I can’t let her pull me down.”
CCP: A good quote from you is, “Nothing is more seriously difficult than the familiar.” And I’m wondering about how you penetrate the familiar to write?
VG: You got to think hard. [Laughs]. And live long.
CCP: So, it’s a matter of time?
VG: Well, it’s a matter of the seriousness of the writer recognizing life with awe. It is essentially what all good writing does. It is looking at the familiar with every bit of penetration one has. The question is how good the writer is. That’s the work of every writer, to realize the mysteriousness of the familiar, to see it related to much of the world.
CCP: So through personal development and work on one’s self?
VG: Most of what writing students write about is themselves. My mother, my father, the family drunk and all this stuff, right? It’s not that it’s banal subject matter in itself. In the end, how many agendas are there in the world? What is anyone writing about, ever? It’s that students are students, and what they’re writing is low-level observation of what they know. Student writing is often boring because it cannot get anywhere.
When I teach, I teach more like an editor than a theoretical teacher. I’m constantly moving students’ writing around to show where the power lies and how to pull together thoughts that are scattered throughout the piece. A student will say something here and repeat it there because he doesn’t know where the two parts belong. Then I say, “Look at it now as I’ve restructured it, what do you see? What is the idea, what is the strength, what is to be pulled from this?”
But often students resist this. As a writer, I grew up with editors and that is what they did for me. So I am always trying to show a student how to find not only the life of a piece, but where is the potential subject. What, really, are you writing about? But it’s boring as hell. [Laughs]. And they don’t like me messing with their words.
CCP: What I think I’m hearing from you is how creative writers are sometimes not used to having editors rearrange their stuff as in journalism. They are sometimes almost too wrapped in how the essay is when they show it to someone. They feel, perhaps, that to rearrange their words is to rearrange themselves.
VG: Then I don’t understand what they’re in school for if that’s the case. You’re right, they resist. I’ve seen that what they want is praise and sometimes they actually say about me, “She doesn’t get my writing.” She doesn’t get my writing? What are they here for? If they think that they are already accomplished writers then what are they in school for? I don’t understand that. Do you?
CCP: You want me to answer that?
VG: You’re closer to them then I am.
CCP: What I would look back on myself and say is that I under-appreciated the work it would take to write, how much it would also take to undo myself before I was ready to write.
VG: Then why come to school?
CCP: I guess I didn’t think it would be that hard maybe. Looking back on myself I thought as soon as I came to grad school I was going to start winning prizes and publishing. I think that’s what the culture sets us up for, sets up writing that way, on a pedestal of once you get to these elite places, all the doors open and everything flows naturally. It’s a very unrealistic expectation. Maybe I didn’t have enough time in me to understand how much development I had to go through and still have to go through. Sometimes it felt like being a teenager.
VG: I know. I feel like a high school teacher. I really do.
CCP: And there have been studies on this, how emotional development has been prolonged, which I think shows it’s effects in the graduate classroom.
VG: Yeah, in America you have until 65 to find yourself. It’s a shock to me that for the first in many, many years I have people in a class of mine who are more or less about needing to be praised. When I was a student or a young writer or even to this day, when an editor shows me something that’s not working I can feel like fainting in the minute I’m hearing it. But I’m very quickly grateful. After all, you have to believe that editors and teachers are acting on good faith, that they want you to learn and that what we all care about is the quality of the piece of work. Whenever everyone in the class doesn’t share that faith, it’s not a good situation, the mentor-teacher project fails.
CCP: My mentor, Kurt Caswell, a writer at Texas Tech, was one of your friend Phillip Lopate’s students. Lopate trashed his writing at Bread Loaf, and Kurt felt like quitting. But it was a kind of right-of-passage. When Kurt trashed my writing he said, “Look, Lopate told me this and I’m telling you now. You don’t have to do this.”
VG: That’s right. No one’s making you do this. You’re here because of inner impulses. I know I have had that thought fifty times over the years, “Vivian, do you really have to be doing this? It’s agony.” You have to keep remembering that.
When I see a great piece of work or when I hear, again, about a writer whose career I consider far more successful than my own, I feel a tinge, a moment of jealousy for literary genius. But I remind myself very fast about how much work it takes for anyone to write. And I know they felt everything I feel constantly. We all have to just be what we are and realize that there isn’t a writer in the world who doesn’t sit there and agonize and re-write at least fifteen times. I just taught Scott Sanders’s “Under the Influence.” Everybody knows that essay. And I hadn’t read the piece in many years, and I was so startled all over again by how good it is and how well put together. I said to myself, “He wrote this fifteen times until he got it.” Anything that is that beautifully put together you know takes huge amounts of work.
CCP: You’ve talked about how New Journalism has helped shape you to be conscious of using yourself as a story vehicle like we’ve been talking about. How do you think about New Journalism when you look back at that movement?
VG: The best of it holds up. The best of it was written by Mailer and Didion and Tom Wolfe and these were good writers who were already writers. They didn’t come out of the movement, but they certainly developed it. But many people who were New Journalists have fallen into oblivion, and rightly so because they didn’t know how to use it. They thought they, themselves, were the subject. The others understood what a teacher of nonfiction says every day of her life, your feelings are not a subject. You are using your feelings to explore a subject. That is what I try to teach students.
CCP: What are your thoughts on the essay as a movement within nonfiction, or outside it?
VG: Some people have a passion for the essay. Phillip Lopate has a passion for the essay. John D’Agatta, has a passion for the essay. I actually do not share this passion. I do what I do because that’s the writer I discovered I was, period. I don’t hold an ideology. I actually like the term, personal narrative. That suits me. I use that so I don’t feel I’m writing fiction or nonfiction
Phillip and John are very fond of saying the essay can do anything. But God knows what that means. I don’t know what it means. I don’t think it can do anything. It can’t run the elevator for you. Montaigne is everyone’s favorite example of the beginning of the essay and, indeed, he did do anything. His essays have no shape. They sprawl all over the place. I don’t think such an essay today is satisfying. And you can’t do that today. Nobody can. Everybody feels that have to have an idea, a point, something they’re moving towards. I think you do have the obligation to shape a piece of experience. It’s difficult for the essayist to find out what the experience is as it is for the novelist.
Also, I’m never going to go on a panel again and talk about the fucking essay. [Laughs]. You can hold me to that comment.
CCP: How do you feel about the nonfiction field now in general, where it’s going, what’s going on?
VG: I don’t know, really. Memoir writing is, of course, a craze and has been for a long time, and most of it is lousy for the same reason that students don’t usually get anywhere. It doesn’t have any flash of insight. These memoirs aren’t about anything beyond themselves. You know, “his heart attack, my cancer, the kids died, the house burned down.” It’s not about anything. And if it’s not about something that would be of interest to a disinterested reader, it’s not about anything. So most of it’s lousy, but some of it’s really good.
The thing is that it’s not that nonfiction is really developing but that fiction writing has, in our moment, come to an end. In other words, there are very few, if any, novelists who are powerful. But the need for story telling and narration in human beings never dies. So that need has turned to memoir writing, to nonfiction. It’s a default position. The personal narrative goes with that. I feel like I’ve carved out a space I’m happy with.
But personal narrative cannot move if it doesn’t have an agenda. The writer has to have a flash of emotional insight and the drama has to move around that idea. When it doesn’t, it’s very unsatisfying. There’s a lot of contemporary writing that doesn’t seem to have an agenda. A lot of it seems like praise to the skies. I have no objection to that, but it doesn’t satisfy me. As a personal narrative writer, I feel I have to have an agenda equal to that of a novelist. In other words, I have a piece of experience to shape and that piece of experience has to hold something in it that will be profitable to the disinterested reader. I feel that’s my obligation, that’s what spurns me to keep making a larger and better sense of what I put down on the page.