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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

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  1,639 ratings  ·  220 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 3.87  · 
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 ·  1,639 ratings  ·  220 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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: 2020, memoir, own, new, writing
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.
Laila Jafri
Mar 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Wish she raised me.
May 11, 2020 added it
I basically read this book. I only had like 30 pages to go so -_-
May 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I cannot stop underlining and scribbling insights in the margins of this book. Good thing I have a clean backup copy.

This is one of the best craft books I've ever seen - rich, captivating, packed with seasoned wisdom, and tasty morsels of model prose.

A rare gem from a very talented writer and teacher.
Sorayya Khan
Nov 29, 2012 rated it really liked it
So many ways to read, so many ways to think about writing, so many ways to teach reading and writing. Gornick's book explores personal narrative, what makes it work and why, and how to differentiate between essay and memoir, but she doesn't believe in craft--or rather, that craft can be taught. She takes her time with examples, inviting us to read with her before telling us why the piece works. One of her examples is Duras' The Lover which I've read and loved, but plenty of others, like Loren Ei ...more
Jan 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Many reviewers here seem disappointed in this book, but I'm inclined to give Gornick the benefit of the doubt, because she describes something really abstract and hard to get at. I have read most of it; I should finish today or tomorrow.

I'll try to summarize what I've read so far. Gornick claims that successful personal narrative requires that the writer form a useful persona from which to narrate, one that best serves to illuminate the subject at hand. The writer's ordinary everyday personality
Literary Mama
The most influential book I have read on the craft of writing is The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. This book, which is aimed at personal essay and memoir writers, completely redefined how I understand writing, how I read, and how I write. 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 ...more
sarah gilbert
This book is rather like a very terrifying and elegant book report, with some artful pieces on either end that could serve as lectures, or essays in creative nonfiction literary journals. Subject: whether or not one can teach memoir writing. Situation: the death of the novel and rise of the memoir. Story: how one writer learned to explore the role of the narrator by workshopping memoir when they kept telling her, 'teach craft!'

She looks so keenly into other writers' innermost selves; she judges,
Mar 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: writing
The situation is context, circumstances, or plot; the story is the emotional experience that occupies the author; this book concerns recognizing whether or not authors are even aware of what truth they're trying to convey. Reading this felt like being present at someone's therapy session. She has an excellent point that good non-fiction writing relies more heavily on clarity of objective than on superior technical skills. Much better to read something with a clear point of view and OK writing sk ...more
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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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You know the saying: There's no time like the present...unless you're looking for a distraction from the current moment. In that case, we can't...
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“If you don't leave home you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen.” 12 likes
“What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.” 8 likes
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