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The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative
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The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  2,071 ratings  ·  264 reviews
A guide to the art of personal writing, by the author of Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel of Love

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
Paperback, 174 pages
Published October 11th 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2001)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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 ·  2,071 ratings  ·  264 reviews

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Jul 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: library-borrow, mfa
This slim volume is helpful to anyone writing essays or a memoir, primarily, but I think there's benefit to fiction writers reading this as well. The idea is simple, and one that is brought up all the time in workshops which can be one of the hardest questions to answer: What is the story?

Let me use myself as an example. I was writing an essay about what I thought was a trip I took to Alaska in high school, but the essay wasn't working. I was reading this book at the time and I realized, duh, th
Mar 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I absolutely loved it. I love Vivian Gornick because of her wonderful Fierce Attachments, and this is like taking a class with her. I recommend this to anyone who would like to write some form of essay or memoir, the way she helps you to read is just wonderful. I will look for some of the essays discussed here, but mostly I really appreciate her view on them, and she leaves me wanting to read more memoir, or more like read it differently, thinking of the possibility of writing.
She speaks of how
Jun 11, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition

I don’t read many nonfiction narratives, but I enjoy Gornick’s writing about other writings, and this was no exception.

She starts off by describing and quoting from certain pieces by several essayists, including Joan Didion and Harry Crews, illustrating how a successful piece arises from the writer finding and then writing from a certain persona. She differentiates personal essay from memoir, as the former using their persona to explore a subject other than themself. One of her examples is N
Nov 11, 2015 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars

A cerebral and abstract homage to the art of personal narrative. Vivian Gornick skips over the fundamental techniques of creative nonfiction to address the craft's deeper issues: the importance of empathy, the construction of the self, and how this style differs from fiction and poetry. She spends a large portion of the book analyzing other writers' work and dissects how they use their "selves" to separate the situation and the story. As a creative nonfiction fanboy, quite a few passage
May 28, 2020 rated it liked it
This book was recommended by a big-shot editor of a big-shot newspaper who accepts and publishes little-shot freelancers' personal narratives in the form of a column. Thus, I expected it would be rich with suggestions for writers new to nonfiction or looking for greater insight into nonfiction.

No, and no.

Turns out, the expected book about writing nonfiction is instead an unexpected book about reading nonfiction. I guess the opening paragraph to the final section of the book, "Conclusion," leave
Sherard H
Jan 16, 2011 rated it liked it
Wait, Let Me Tell YOU

The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, NYC

"Here's the situation, and the story, and you can like it, or get out."~Vivian Gornick.

Just kidding. But she might as well have gone that far. The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick is a short novel about nonfiction writing, with a notable section on writing memoir. Gornick, who has taught M.F.A. classes concentrated in nonfiction and also in memoir, holds unique gems and insights into the
Jan Priddy
Sep 13, 2019 rated it liked it
I have mixed feelings. "There will be those to say . . . I am harsh, embittered." Yes, I would be among those to say that. The writing is compelling though somewhat repetitive, but the usefulness of this slim book as a tool in learning to write memoir is also slim. Further, Gornick has a dark view of life and of writing which is not to everyone's taste. This reads as an academic study, the sort of thing I might have written during the third term of my MFA. Mostly she quotes memoirists and then e ...more
Ying Ying
Jun 10, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: audiobook, writing
The title contains the main message of the book. Vivian, who teaches memoir writing, tells us that there are two components to the personal narrative: the situation and the story. This differentiation is enlightening because we often focus on the situation: the facts and the dates, while ignoring what makes an essay truly remarkable: the human story, e.g. of love or loneliness. The book explores this narrative duo by interpreting brilliant pieces of memoir. Like the author, we should learn to be ...more
Carrie Poppy
Sep 06, 2021 rated it really liked it
Had to read for a Harvard class. (Name drop; whatever no big deal.)

It’s good! Listen I have a lot of reading to do. I gotta go.
Mar 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays, memoir, nonfiction
A deliberate slow read for me as I wished to absorb the teaching, while researching and writing my own work, something definitely clicked in my understanding which I hope translates across into my writing.
On The Essay
In the first half Gornick dissects a few essays, citing them as evidence of her theory of the narrative that really demands attention and works, because it has been structured, attention being given to understanding the difference between the situation and the story.

A theory that c
Aug 25, 2011 rated it did not like it
If Aristotle tells us that a writer must evoke ethos, pathos, and logos in order to craft a successful persuasive essay, Gornick fails at the first two miserably. Based on the introduction, she does not establish ethos - proving to the reader that she is knowledgeable about what she is writing on. There are no prizes for cramming as many words into a sentence as you can and phrasing things in the most oblique way possible. After the introduction, I couldn't trust anything she said (thus pathos w ...more
Apr 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: on-writing
"You cannot teach people how to write." Any book that says that, I'm going to have a lot of problems with. The sentiment is more a reflection of bankrupt ideas about teaching than a judicious assessment of what can happen when a group of people get together to talk about writing and are provided structure and guidance in getting their own writing done. But, yes, you can't make people good writers by lecturing at them, nor under any circumstances are they likely to morph into "writers," whatever ...more
Anastasiya Mozgovaya
Oct 23, 2022 rated it it was amazing
one of those brilliant books that i will go back to again and again and again!
Sep 18, 2013 rated it did not like it
I rarely write book reviews, but this book was so far from what it is presented to be that I felt I needed to let others know my observations about it.

I enjoyed the first 26 pages (the introduction), but reading the rest of the book was an exercise in frustration. The introduction explains the difference between a situation and a story in a piece of writing - very helpful. I thought the remainder of the book would continue to explain these differences and how to know which one is which in one's
Jan 02, 2009 rated it really liked it
Vivian Gornick’s tremendous book on the craft of nonfiction writing, The Situation and the Story, is an exemplary resource for writers. In this book, Gornick discusses in great detail the art of writing personal essays and memoir. However, the driving force behind this book is how no one can be taught how to write; rather, outstanding nonfiction writers look at themselves with reflective introspection in order to connect with their subject matter. It is this introspection that draws the reader ...more
Jul 10, 2022 rated it it was amazing
Gornick never disappoints. Interested to read Jean Amery’s essays on ageing.

“Then we become strangers to ourselves. We look in the mirror and are startled, if not shocked, by the face that looks back at us. This is a shock from which we never recover; it, too, is with us day after day (the irony here being that it is only now that we actually see ourselves with any clarity.” (Jean Amery, p59)

“In the life of every human being there is a point in time…where each discovers that one is only what on
Laryssa Wirstiuk
Oct 20, 2011 rated it it was ok
Always happy to read books about the craft of writing, I was excited to absorb any wisdom that Vivian Gornick could impart. Overall, I think the concept of this book is wonderful - understanding the difference between what she calls "situation" (the setting or circumstances) and the "story" (the narrative voice that rises up from the situation) is important for any writer. However, she only devotes a few pages to directly addressing the concept. Where is the practical advice? How am I to benefit ...more
Brittany Meghan
Dec 25, 2019 rated it it was ok
Overall, this book provides solid information. However, the reason I give it two stars is that I've read various "How to write a memoir" books in the past year and they're all so flowery. The authors write like memoirists who have been asked to write a manual. By this I mean the writer shows examples of good writing instead of telling what exactly at a fundamental level good writing is.

I wished instead the author of this book consolidated the advice, provided practical tests to see if a piece o
David E
Aug 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Well worth the read - especially if you're writing a memoir. In The Situation and the Story, Vivian walks her audience through a number of successful memoirs, drawing connections between tone of voice and meaning. It goes a lot deeper but that's the main vein of thought. enjoyed her writing and learned a great deal about voice.
Timothy Baldwin
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
I think Gornick's final statements captures the way in which this book should be read. She writes, "How does the writer of personal narrative pull from his or her own boring, agitated self the truth speaker who will tell the story that needs to be told? That is the question I asked, and in the course of answering, I trained my eyes on writing: how it got done, how it functioned, took its place in the world, helped alter literary history." With this in mind, we should approach the reading of this ...more
Mar 13, 2022 rated it really liked it
Another book based on an MFA writing class! This time, we dive into the work of world-class essayists and memoirists (Didion, Baldwin, Wilde, Duras, to name a few). Vivian Gornick’s thesis, the lens through which she considers their work, is simple:

“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.”

We therefore ask ourselves, when writing (or the writer, wh
Rena Graham
May 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: on-writing, memoir
This has become one of my favorite books on writing personal narrative. It's a small book that goes deeply into exactly what the title suggests. I love Gornick's super-smart voice and the way she teases apart what happened to the writer vs what the writer was able to make of what happened. Her inclusion of V. S. Pritchett's quote, "It's all in the art. You get no credit for living" feels like the heart of this book. I also appreciated some of her more obscure literary references, like The Rings ...more
Jonathan Hiskes
Nov 19, 2021 rated it really liked it
Gornick argues argues that compelling personal writing requires creating a convincing persona on the page--a character who is not a biographical copy of the author but a figure who is fully engaged in understanding the topic at hand. "The situation" is the context the narrator finds herself in (growing up religious, fighting off sharks from a life raft, whatever). "The story" is the narrator's journey toward insight, whatever it may be. ...more
Jan 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent resource on memoir writing using many examples of other memoirs and essays to bolster her explanations, and gave me a new reading list fo further research. Type of book where you write down quotes. I will look forward to her other works as well, as she is a very insightful and intelligent writer.
H R Venkatesh
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wonderful little book. Quite enjoyed her approach to focus on "who is speaking, what is being said, and what is the relation between the two". For would-be memoir writers, I would say, complement this with Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir. ...more
Dec 24, 2021 rated it really liked it
An excellent book on the art of writing personal nonfiction, i.e., memoir, autobiography, and the like. Gornick offers superb examples of where well-known authors--Baldwin, Wilde, Didion, etc.--have taken both the right and wrong paths. Her readings of these writers are exceptionally insightful. She is great on the varieties and meanings of tone, the subtleties of word choice, the obligation to preserve credibility, not overwrite, and frame a piece of nonfiction within a sturdy "situation." ...more
Melissa Matthewson
Aug 12, 2018 rated it liked it
I know everyone loves this book, but I was bored with it mostly. A few good tips gleaned from reading. I like the book recommendations. Maybe I’ll read again in the future.
Kati Stevens
Oct 26, 2019 rated it liked it
There are other books one can read.
Kristin Boldon
Jan 12, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir, new, own, writing, 2020
Gornick's sharp take on memoir, and her insightful close readings are instructive, but she is perhaps a bit TOO insistent on her own truths as absolute. ...more
Laila Jafri
Mar 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wish she raised me.
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Vivian Gornick is the author of, among other books, the acclaimed memoir Fierce Attachments and three essay collections: The End of the Novel of Love, Approaching Eye Level, and, most recently, The Men in My Life. She lives in New York City.

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