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Amy Lou Jenkins is the award-winning author of Every Natural Fact: Five Seasons of Open-Air Parenting

"If you combined the lyricism of Annie Dillard, the vision of Aldo Leopold, and the gentle but tough-minded optimism of Frank McCourt, you might come close to Amy Lou Jenkins.Tom Bissell author of The Father of All Things 

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The Situation and the Story:

 A writers  response to this book for writers of the personal narrative

By Amy Lou Jenkins

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 

I approached Vivian Gornicks’ The Situation and The Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative as if opening the pages of her book were akin to entering a landscape with buried treasure.  Help me Gornick; help me find the booty that will make my prose transcendent, entertaining, and make the publishers start a bidding war for my manuscript.  Gornick must have understood the greedy intentions of reader/writers like me because she began her book with her own parallel search.  Specifically, she let me into her head as she searched for the keys to understanding why in a series of eulogies, one possessed a message that “deepened the atmosphere and penetrated my [her] heart.”  Immediately she established that we would search together, but would not find a sparkling truvaille that would increase the stock of our writing.  The process just isn’t that easy.  The eulogist’s words were effective because she had composed her thoughts, finding a narrative voice wherein she knew who was speaking and why.   The personal narrative’s power rests in the writer finding the self, the voice, the persona to perceive and reflect the thing being seen.  The story is not in the situation, it’s in the narrator.

Gornick lets us know by page seven that finding the effective narrator is an artistic chore: “The unsurrogated narrator carries the monumental burden of transforming low-level self-interest into a kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.”   She shrines her truths with literary artistry and the confidence to tell us that the reader of a personal narrative won’t be moved to be interested unless the writer undergoes a soul-searching apprenticeship.  The writer puzzles her or his way in and out of an experience and tries to make art of the attempt.

The treasure on the page is the gift of Gornick’s reflection and reason as she leads the reader through some of her personal writing history and through literary history as it relates to the essay and memoir.  She does the work for the searcher and finds the pearls in the prose of George Orwell, Edmund Gosse, Marguerite Duras,  Seymour Krim , Joan Didion, Edward Hoagland, and more.  Her incorporation of lengthy blocks of quotations, followed by an examination of the effectiveness of the narrator turns each author into an analysand.  We begin to have a sense of why these writers touch our own psyche, why their voice and prose transcend the decades.  Still, we don’t really know how to do this for ourselves.  We do, however, begin to glimpse a bigger picture.

The Situation and the Story, much like Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and even Sontag’s essay “Under the Sign of Saturn,” alludes to a satisfaction in the slow and deliberate thinking and reflection required to craft a personal essay or memoir.  The acute self-engagement required of a personal nonfiction writer creates a new level of consciousness.  Like Dillard, who blurs the two words writing and living together as though they were the same word, and like Sontag, who purports that slow and complex thoughts create a meaningful life, Gornick requires the writer to live life as a thinker.  We have Gornick's trained eye, searching the different ways memoirs and essays work.  She said, “I think I believed that if I let a ribbon of selective association unfold, unimpeded, then inner coherence would prevail that would result in: all things considered.  I was wrong.”   The writer must find the truth speaker  A level of alertness to the craft and artistry of life may fill the voice of a personal narrator or not, but a high level of dedication to living consciously is a necessary precursor to finding a story in the situation and in finding a narrator to tell the tale.   Gornick creates intimacy with her reader. She understands that I covet easy answers. She understands that her reflection and analysis of the personal narrative couldn’t lead me to a pot of gold.  So, she launches her reader/writers to their own continued exploration.  She concludes by offering that she had learned (and in the process taught us) to train her eyes on writings that worked and that to “read out of one’s own narrow but clarified need…was to teach oneself better how to write—and how to teach writing.”    The search for my personal  story resides within a search for the story-teller.