When I teach writing classes, attend conferences, or participate in writing groups, there are invariable people present who are working on memoirs. We (meaning "we humans," not just "we writers") do have an abiding interest in our own stories. For a memoir to work for readers other than the author, though, it needs to be about more than me, me, me.
All of which prompted me recently to reread (for the fifth or sixth time) Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of the Personal Narrative (2001), which I highly recommend to anyone writing memoir and, really, most types of narrative nonfiction. It's a slim book but is not an easy read. In fact, I'm sure I haven’t grasped all the subtleties even yet. Still, Gornick’s main point seems clearly to be that effective personal narrative is neither plot nor setting nor structure nor emotion alone, but a rich amalgam of those elements and more. Nor is effective personal narrative an exercise in self-indulgent navel gazing; the author must, Gornick argues, transcend the self and take on a persona that "is the instrument of illumination."
Structure is essential. To illustrate, Gornick reflects on a eulogy that stood out among several others because the eulogist had imposed structural order on the things she had to say. As Gornick put it, "Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association....dramatic buildup occurred....This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that...caused me to feel, with powerful immediacy, not only the actuality of the woman being remembered but – even more vividly – the presence of the one doing the remembering."
Structure, the rest of the book argues, is built up of a situation and a story told in the voice of the writer’s persona. Just as a novel has a narrator who is not the author, a well-written memoir has a narrator -- Gornick's persona -- who is not the author. That's a sticky distinction for most of us to make, but it makes sense when we realize that we tell our own stories differently for different audiences. Or, as Gornick might say, we take on difference personae for differing purposes.
Gornick defines "situation" as "the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot," including conflict between the persona and something or someone integral to the situation itself. "Story," in contrast, "is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer; the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say." It is, in other words, the persona’s complex response to the situation.
It is that persona(l) response to a situation - the situation of the book - that draws us in, but it is the larger meaning of personal story that keeps us there, fascinated by another person's story because, in the end, it is our story, too.
What are your favorite memoirs or "memoirishes"? I have a long list, but here are five that stand out for me, and they are all about much more than the authors who wrote them:
- Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams
- The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
- Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass
- Dog Years by Mark Doty