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review 2017-05-05 14:57
"The Situation and the Story," by Vivian Gornick
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative - Vivian Gornick

Vivian Gornick's book on the art of essay writing was bound to get good marks from me, if only for its extensive drawing of examples from famous books and essays.


Criticism — as compared to reviews — is a singularly rewarding experience, especially in the hands of a good writer such as Gornick. It can open your eyes to a new way of seeing a piece you have already read or turn you on to writers you have never experienced. In the course of this book I was turned on to Seymour Krim, I reopened an essay by Joan Didion, and I've hunted down a PDF of Edward Hoagland's "The Courage of Turtles." 


The point is theoretically to help in the writing of essays, but I was delighted to discover that what drew me in was perhaps the point all along. Gornick does not reveal until the conclusion her suspicion of studying "craft" (as it were) and the idea that one can teach writing at all. It's not how to write but how to read, critically and with an eye toward story, that drives The Situation and the Story. Gornick is asking the reader to dig deeper, discover what it is about Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant" that makes it compelling.


"Who is speaking, what is being said and what is the relation between the two," is a repeated admonition as you read into a story. Orwell going out and shooting an elephant could be an act of bravado, it could be an act of cruelty, but  in the way he writes it is an exploration of colonialism. What it means to represent a ruling nation among a people who aren't keen to have you there, and especially when you're not too keen on the idea either. What does that position do to someone? This comes through in his voice, in the way he describes "the situation" as much as in the actions he takes. Asking these questions will make such readings more enjoyable and meaningful, but should also inform your own work.


The crux of this lies in a story about one of who students writing an essay about her grandfather — a man she has never met. The story isn't quite working until someone realizes that her learning about her grandfather is the situation, it provides a structure for the story, the actions on which the writer can hang meaning. The story, the meaning itself, is actually about the girl connecting with the grandmother. From there the essay starts to come together in a more satisfying way. 


I am not convinced with all of Gornick's stances, her belief in the inborn gift of writing skill is maybe just said wrong or maybe it is magical thinking. And the way her distaste for post-modernism is slipped in does not serve any end except to let you know she is not a fan. But if you are interested in personal writing, either to write or read, this is a good place to start.

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text 2015-07-17 16:00
Fabulous Finds Friday: July 14, 2015 LIBRARY EDITION
Dad is Fat - Jim Gaffigan
A Sport and a Pastime - James Salter,Reynolds Price
Bonjour Tristesse - Diane Johnson,Irene Ash,Fran├žoise Sagan
Jane Austen's England - Roy Adkins,Lesley Adkins
A Broom of One's Own: Essays on Housecleaning and the Writing - Nancy Peacock
My Life in Middlemarch - Rebecca Mead
Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction - Dinty W. Moore

Dad is Fat. All the promos for Jim Gaffigan's new show reminded me that I've been meaning to read this.


A Sport and a Pastime. Good for a sultry summer read.


Bonjour Tristesse. Another melodramatic, affair-filled summer read.


Jane Austen's England. I'm going to keep checking this out until I finally get to read it.


A Broom of One's Own. This one sort of caught my eye, as I worked as a house cleaner in college.


My Life in Middlemarch. I love a well-written look at the power of books in our lives, and this one is very well done. I also love Middlemarch but haven't found the time to revisit it.


Crafting the Personal Essay. I really want to spruce up my writing. I didn't have a lot of luck with an ARC from this same writer (the format was so bad, it was practically unreadable), but I thought I would give it a chance.

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text 2013-12-18 22:27
Not a review, but a call to arms
Writing with Intent: Essays, Reviews, Personal Prose--1983-2005 - Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is a genius.


I am not.


Margaret Atwood is a poet.


I am not.


Margaret Atwood is a writer.


I was, but not so much any more.  Or perhaps I was, and will be again?


As I frequently tell my dear friend KP who is not on BookLikes, I really do not believe in omens.  And yet, and yet, and yet, sometimes things happen that I think maybe could be omens, or would be omens, or should be omens, if I believed in such things.


This was the first, blogged by Derrolyn Anderson.  And I read it and for a moment I couldn't breathe, and I wanted to cry.




I do want to write, maybe more than anything.  It's all I ever really wanted to do, and for a while I did.  But now I use my boring, underpaid, but financially necessary day job as an excuse ("There is no excuse.") because I am afraid of failure, mundane failure.  I'm afraid that I cannot bring in sufficient cash to support myself . . . and I have no other support.


So that was the first omen, arriving just as I began the day's work at the boring, underpaid, but financially necessary day job that is an excuse.


And then later there were the quotes from Margaret Atwood in I'll think of a damn title later's reviews.  Not just because I'm familiar with Atwood's work and politics, but because one of the quotes referred to Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, to whose work I'd been introduced so many years ago in high school Spanish.  Years ago, when dreams were young and bright and just barely out of reach.


Links to themes and ties to the past and streamers of memories and dreams and aspirations, all of which seem somehow way out of reach at the moment.


But then in this review, the quoted poem "Another Visit to the Oracle" reminded me that I have an unread book of Atwood's essays.  And like I'll think of a damn title later, I felt the visceral reaction.


For this is what I do, Margaret Atwood writes, with confidence and authority.


And this is what I try to do, what I want to do, what I always dreamed of doing, I write with hesitation and a glance at the clock to make sure I still have time to finish my work.


To see what you do not. 

To breathe in the sounds, to smell the whispers and taste the screams of souls yearning for life.

To touch the fragrances that burst in my eyes like satin violins all crimson and chartreuse, sparkling with the songs of diamonds.

To feel what you do not or did not or have not, and to try with words, fragile words, feeble words, terrified and terrifying words to give you, freely and without obligation, the passion of my experiences and the experience of my passion.

To create a world that's never been created, that cannot be created, that exists because it cannot not be, because it exists in a dream and all dreams are real simply because they are dreams.


Somewhere along the way, I lost my dreams.  Not my passion, for I still have that in abundance.  But something happened to the dreams.  The dreams that cannot not be.  The dreams that must be.


The dreams that will be.  Because that is what I do.

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