The Situation and the Story / Vivian Gornick

Title: The Situation and the Story

Author: Vivian Gornick

Genre: Nonfiction

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 11th 2002 (first published 2001)

Pages: 174

Synopsis: All narrative writing must pull from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver a bit of wisdom. In a story or a novel the “I” who tells this tale can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator but in nonfiction the reader must always e persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth.

How does one pull from one’s own boring, agitated self the truth-speaker who will tell the story a personal narrative needs to tell? That is the question The Situation and the Story asks—and answers. Taking us on a reading tour of some of the best memoirs and essays of the past hundred years, Gornick traces the changing idea of self that has dominated the century, and demonstrates the enduring truth-speaker to be found in the work of writers as diverse as Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, or Marguerite Duras.

This book, which grew out of fifteen years teaching in MFA programs, is itself a model of the lucid intelligence that has made Gornick one of our most admired writers of nonfiction. In it, she teaches us to write by teaching us how to read: how to recognize truth when we hear it in the writing of others and in our own.


I didn’t expect such a wealth of information within this small volume. Vivian Gornick’s tremendous book on the craft of nonfiction writing, The Situation and the Story, is going on my bookshelf as an exemplary resource for writers. The book itself is aimed towards those who wish to craft a personal essay or memoir. Gornick says that every piece of writing has a situation and a story—the thing that happened and the why, the passion, and the emotional insight that brought the writer to the page. Knowing the difference between situation and story, and being able to incorporate that knowledge into your work, is the key to great writing. To Gornick, there is no way to teach the craft of the essay or memoir; instead she uses examples to guide her reader towards a better understanding of the voice behind a personal piece of writing.

“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context of circumstance, sometimes the plot;  the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

Gornick does not leave her own writing shoes at the door. Her notes on each example are beautiful written and, at times, thought-provoking. She does something the other guides to writing the personal essay do not—she offers these pieces as a means of teaching and steps back. She teaches us to write by teaching us to recognize the success of a strong essay. She does not force-feed her structures on her reader. She allows the reader to absorb her opinions and formulate their own. 

“In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic.”

This guide will be more helpful to individuals who already understand the foundation of writing a strong personal narrative. Those who want more direct instruction may feel disappointed. I for one found the freedom of the instruction and the excerpts from other writers extremely helpful. The most memorable passages include those from “The Death of the Moth” by Virginia Woolf and “In Bed” by Joan Didion. I found the first half of the book more suitable to my needs, as an essayist, but it was definitely worth a thorough read. 

4-star-rating

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