I’m re-reading Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story for my writing group. I’ve only made it to page 26 so far, but already I’m reminded of why this book is so highly regarded in creative nonfiction circles. It’s because Gornick is able to explain what essayists do in a way that is both accessible and profound. For example: “the way the narrator — or the persona — sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen.”
Holy crap. Yes.
That is the distinction between creative nonfiction and journalism. In a newspaper article, for instance, the writer is invisible. The reader gets the facts, the necessary information, but — we hope — it’s not filtered through any particular lens, tinted by any particular emotion. The event itself is the story. In creative nonfiction, though, the event is simply a backdrop — the scenery, if you will. The real story is the way that the narrator perceives, presents, and reacts to the event. What is filtered out, what is highlighted. Which words are used, which images. For instance, the narrator who describes grandma’s skin as “rice paper” and the narrator who describes it as “soft” are two very different people; neither is more correct than the other, but the perspective, and therefore the story, changes.
This is where the title of Gornick’s book comes in. She calls the event “the situation” and the narrator’s response — the emotional arc — “the story.” One of my undergraduate professors, fiction writer Allyson Goldin Loomis, explained it another way: “There’s what it’s about, and there’s what it’s ABOUT.” About = situation, ABOUT = story.
Take, for instance, Joan Didion in “The White Album.” It’s an essay about the tumult of the 1960s. Many people have written about the tumult of the 1960s. Many, many, many people. But this particular essay does not tell the story of many, many people.
On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.
This excerpt is about the Manson murders, but it isn’t ABOUT them. At the forefront is a woman whose lack of surprise is itself the surprise. Her reaction to this lack of surprise, the wishing to forget it, becomes more interesting than the murders themselves. It becomes the focal point of the passage. It’s exactly as Gornick says: the narrator is what’s being seen, not the event. The fact that a reader is more interested in someone’s reaction than in a brutal multiple murder is amazing. The fact that nonfiction writers have at our disposal the tools to do that is amazing. And, of course, Joan Didion is amazing…but that goes without saying.
When I read essays that have been submitted to Stoneboat, the literary journal where I serve as Nonfiction Editor, I often see work that contains a lot of situation but very little story. The situations are often quite interesting, but the writer has failed to recognize that a situation is not a story. There has to be more than an interesting plot, because in creative nonfiction, the plot is really the least important aspect. Take Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels.” Annie Dillard just sits on a log and watches some weasels. It would make a terrible movie. But even though nothing happens from a plot perspective, a lot happens in the narrator’s head. Readers watch her watch weasels, and it’s fascinating.
As a nonfiction writer, it is my duty to make readers see me seeing the situation. I need to react to the situation. Contemplate it. Interrogate it. Explore possibilities. Reach conclusions. Show why I should be the one to tell this story. After all, it is not the plot that is being seen; it is me, the narrator, the persona, the voice on the page.
This post was originally published, in slightly different form, on the Stoneboat blog.