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The Situation and the Story

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  1,367 ratings  ·  180 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 mus
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Published January 24th 2017 by Audible Studios on Brilliance Audio (first published 2001)
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3.86  · 
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 ·  1,367 ratings  ·  180 reviews

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Jul 16, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: mfa, library-borrow
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
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Sherard H
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
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
Aug 25, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
David E
Aug 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 R.
Jul 05, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Rena Graham
May 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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.
Melissa Matthewson
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.
May 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 18, 2013 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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 30, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Laryssa Wirstiuk
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
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,
What I love about this book is that in her capacity as guide to writing personal essay and memoir, Gornick does not leave her own writing shoes at the door (as seems to be the case with many guides). Instead, this often reads like a detective novel: How exactly does one craft a provocative essay? What do all compelling memoirs have in common?
The only beef I have with this guide is that it would have been better to include entire essays/chapters of memoirs, instead of tiny bits interspersed with
Mar 11, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Cortney Cassidy
Mar 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
hell ye

write with "detached empathy" about "inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires" as "part personal essay, part social a means of making some larger sense of things...a fusion of experience, perspective, and personality...use [yourself] only to clarify the argument, develop the analysis, push the story forward."

"a narrator who was me and at the same time not me."
Sigrun Hodne
Jul 19, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: on-writing
Gornick has a strong voice, not one to always agree with, but a voice which makes you think. I especially liked the part on personal essays, maybe, if I ever am to write a memoir, I will find part two just as interesting.
Steve Turtell
Jul 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Should be read by everyone writing, or even thinking about, or just reading a memoir.
Apr 21, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
Too much example from other books/writing and not enough original advice or insights.
May 15, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Now I can right good.
Jan 21, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an exemplary guide to the narrative voice. Please read my full review!
Sep 30, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: craft-books
While I am sure I am not the first, nor the last, to spout praise for Vivian Gornick's part-craft-book-part-personal-narrative-part-literary-criticism, The Situation and the Story, it's certainly one helluva book. In this book, Gornick seems to (re)teach us that to be good writers means to first be good readers. It is through her specific textual analyses of works by Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, Edmund Gosse, James Baldwin, and Marguerite Duras, among others, that she teaches us the significance of ...more
Howard Cincotta
Vivian Gornick’s book is a small masterpiece in a field awash in writings about how to write, become inspired to write, or both. For me, it belongs on a shelf alongside Francine Prose’s wonderful Reading Like a Writer.

Gornick’s essay has two sections, one on the personal essay, the other on the memoir. She connects both with a thesis that is simple to state but fiendishly complex to execute: to tell a story truthfully, we must have a firm grasp of the self who is narrating the story. In other wo
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Date of Birth: 1935

Vivian Gornick is an American critic, essayist, and memoirist. For many years she wrote for the Village Voice. She currently teaches writing at The New School. For the 2007-2008 academic year, she will be a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. She caused a controversy when she said that she had invented parts of Fierce Attachments, her largely autobiographica
“If you don't leave home you suffocate, if you go too far you lose oxygen.” 8 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.” 6 likes
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