Photo: Ben DeFlorio Photography
By Alexis Paige
The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts
For more years than I care to admit, I have been working on a memoir about my unlikely journey through the Texas criminal justice system, including a 60-day stint in the Harris County Jail, one of the largest and worst in the country, with a terrible record of inmate sexual assaults, in-custody deaths, and violations of health and sanitation standards. I say unlikely because I am white, educated, middle-class, and have good teeth. All these factors marked me as an oddity in the jail, but I was told by my pod-mates at some point weeks into my sentence that the combination of my whiteness and nice teeth in particular marked me as suspicious, possibly a narc. I started the memoir long before I knew what I was doing and became so mired by the labor that I began to write little scenes and vignettes for relief, to feel a sense of accomplishment. The vignettes became their own labor, for in them I found myself finally confronting the sexual assault I had buried like a drum of nuclear waste and stored in some Area 51 of my own consciousness. In sidestepping one book, I found myself writing another.
But now that this other book is about to be published, it’s time to re-enter the jail manuscript, and re-entry, unfortunately, is not at all like riding a bike, not a simple matter of picking up where I left off. I am different now than I was even 18 months ago when I set the book aside, which is to say that the memoir’s retrospective narrator is different, the vantage point altered. You become the writer you need to be to finish the book, my MFA mentor David Mura once said. I didn’t ask him what happens if you don’t become that writer. I’m not certain where this becoming has located me now in relation to my memoir project, but something palpable has shifted. In rereading the draft recently, much of it felt off—not the events of the story, nor, I don’t think, the structure, but some tonal nuance, some quality of insight. In the hopes of steeling myself for the task, I decided to go back to basics and to re-read two of my favorite creative nonfiction craft books, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Sven Birkert’s The Art of Time in Memoir.
For the writer of narrative nonfiction and other storytellers, The Situation and the Story is a revelation. Every other sentence is something that needs to be written down, remembered, revisited, and made into a writer’s tattoo. So much clarity and insight and depth are distilled into this small volume. It is the clarity I especially admire; it has the quality of carefully brewed wisdom, and inspires the feeling that we are getting her best stuff.
In important ways, Gornick’s ideas about the different components of nonfiction narrative—the situation and the story—dovetail with Sven Birkerts’ ideas in The Art of Time in Memoir. Though he talks about time, and she largely about person or persona (the nonfiction narrator), both writers are engaged in a complex discussion of structure, or of what Gornick calls “organizing principle.” Both writers, I think, are interested in the way in which good nonfiction emerges from a place of contact, collision, force acting upon force. Whether concerned with persona or time, we must not render a flat self or a flat experience. The voice and the events must rise out of an important shaping force, a kind of texturizing pressure, a place of axis as a place of access.
One of Birkerts’ examples of the important friction that time provides is in an analysis of Annie Dillard’s lyrical memoir, An American Childhood. The explicated passage is a nighttime scene of sense and felt memory as narrated by Dillard’s child self from her childhood bedroom. Birkerts writes, “The author here enacts in compressed form [that it is compression seems important] what the memoirist more commonly works out on the macroscale, namely, the collision of original perception and hindsight realization: the revision of the then by the now” (37). It is this place of collision that he highlights again and again, the place (or time) where story meets the apprehension of story.
Gornick uses different terms, but I would suggest that she examines fundamentally the same phenomenon—how friction makes the magic of narrative nonfiction (principles, which of course, apply to all storytelling). “The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void,” Gornick writes. “The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, and experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts” (14). It seems that each is talking about this critical engagement—whether engagement with self or experience or time. Both writers assert a fundamental truth about writing, namely, that writing is art making, much like sculpture or painting; to locate narrative or self is to locate the right place/time/self of the story and the right place/time/self of the telling of that story. The right juncture, perhaps. This location must be one of moment and of movement—not in any traditional sense of drama—but in the mind of the memoirist. I suspect this location has changed for me now, and I need to locate some new juncture in my ever-becoming mind. The goal of the memoir, perhaps, is to find the wormhole from now to then; the problem, of course, is that the now is always moving.
What we remember has intrinsic force and value to us, but the force and value of the memory is driven by its active apprehension of that memory in the now of its rendering. My writing is never flatter than when memory is unearthed by way of a kind of forced dredging. Engagement might come in the form of a self in conflict or a time of conflict, but story can’t emerge from static experience or a static self. In re-entering my memoir, in particular the skin of the retrospective narrator who was cryogenically frozen in 2014, I have found that the fit is off. So how does a writer re-engage in order to make art? Confronting the narrative forces of time and persona, and re-calibrating my narrative persona to one of this writing moment, to this now, I hope, will make the difference. I need to start again, which is not to say that I need to start from scratch.
In the beginning of her book, Gornick takes the reader to a funeral, wherein eulogy after boring eulogy stretch on without texture or meaning—that is, until we come upon a story shared by a woman who spoke of the complexity of her relationship with the deceased. The difference between the stories that didn’t work and the one that rose in sharp relief from the others, the story that stayed with Gornick, was that the latter “had been composed” (4). It is not experience, even dramatic experience, that makes a great story, but a writer’s shaping that makes a story. On this point, I think that Birkerts and Gornick would agree that the shaping is the art making. “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story,” Gornick says. “The situation is the context or 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” (13). If I use my own memoir as an example, I might say that the situation is this: middle-class white girl from the North gets in trouble with the law in Texas and confronts her alcohol problem in the process. But the story, the fulcrum of the experience, is the discovery or the recovery of identity amid failure. Wait, no, this was the story in some old version. Then, later, it was the story of confronting racial privilege. And now? It’s still all those things perhaps, but filtered through some newer, actively-grappling self-definition.
The situation or series of events can be anything, Gornick suggests, so long as it’s well made, so long as the situation is drawn through a compelling story. And a compelling story—emotional experience, the apprehension of experience—can be delivered only by a particular narrator, one who knows him- or herself at the time of the writing. First, the narrator must be reliable. Much is made of this reliability in nonfiction circles, but defining reliability is fraught. Do we mean a kind of competence, like a court reporter? Or do we mean something else, something akin to authenticity? Gornick suggests, by way of an example from Orwell, that a reliable narrator is one who inspires trust by admitting defect, wrestling with mixed feelings, and by rendering inner conflict. I have come to believe that this kind of narrator has tolerance for ambiguity and for his or her own unresolvedness—that trying to make sense of one’s mess is what makes the work interesting.
In response to Orwell’s reflection on the ugliness of imperialism, Gornick writes, “The man who speaks those sentences is the story being told: a civilized man made murderous by the situation he finds himself in” (16). Gornick argues that the reliable narrator must implicate him or herself; it is by the act of self-implication that we come to know and trust the persona of the story.
Interestingly, she distinguishes the narrator’s persona from the writer him- or herself, much in the way we distinguish the speaker of a poem from the poet, but I find the use of the word persona paradoxical. Persona suggests a construct, something not real. Perhaps this paradox fuels some of the wonderful friction out of which stories are made. Of course, as a practical matter, the writer must construct a narrator, a persona, in order to win over the disinterested reader. The writer can’t be all of her selves; Gornick points out that our real selves, all of our selves accumulated, are just boring and whiny. We save these selves—all of them in their accumulated banality—for our dear, patient friends and family.
Gornick draws some other important connections between writerly concerns and personae. She writes about style and persona, about persona rising from a kind of stylized, yet authentic, self. As in the case of Orwell, she writes, “the persona he created in his nonfiction—an essence of democratic decency—was something genuine that he pulled from himself, and then shaped to his writer’s purpose” (17). That this something was genuine seems an important point to make. The other concerns she has us consider in terms of creating a narrator include distance and subject. She suggests that her own lack of narrative distance sank her early drafts of a memoir about Egypt. She was too close; therefore, there was no movement, no arrival at clarity.
Finally, Gornick suggests the writer keep in mind the “disinterested reader” to avoid the trap of memoir as therapy, testament, or mere transcription (again, these are pitfalls Birkerts has observed). She writes, “the shaped presentation of one’s own life is of value to the disinterested reader only if it dramatizes and reflects sufficiently on the experience of ‘becoming’: undertakes to trace the internal movement away from the murk of being told who you are by the accident of circumstance toward the clarity that identifies accurately the impulses of the self that Cather calls inviolable” (93). This movement toward clarity helps me to think about my own project because I realize that I have to re-enter the manuscript now and move toward a newer, fresher clarity so that the reader can experience “becoming” along with me. As Gornick points out, “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom” (91). The door to the wormhole has moved, even if only slightly, and I need to line up the portals once again in order to find the story. Re-entry, like everything else, is just a matter of time, work, and physics.
Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was named a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays anthology, was featured on Longform, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize and twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not a Place on Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published on December 5, 2016. Paige teaches writing at colleges and universities throughout New England and writes from a converted farmhouse pantry in rural Vermont, where she lives with her husband, and their two dogs, Jazz and George. She can be found at alexispaigewrites.com.