We’re already on week three in our semester! Below I continue with a basic discussion of topics covered in our undergraduate Creative Nonfiction Writing seminar:
Vivian Gornick’s craft book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, was one of the most important books I read as a student of creative nonfiction. The comments in today’s class (or, in this case, “post”) are gleaned largely from what I learned from this book and from numerous talks with author/teacher Michael Steinberg. Steinberg’s essay “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays” from our text The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction offers a good, targeted summary of this topic.
So, what is the difference between the “situation” and the “story” (to use Gornick’s terms) in creative nonfiction?
One of the most common errors made by writers who first attempt to write memoirs or personal essays is to relate events in a straight, narrative fashion without looking beneath the surface for any deeper meaning (or perhaps without explaining what they think lies beneath the surface because they assume the reader will just figure it out). A common first essay, or first draft of an essay written even by experienced CNF writers, describes an event or memory this way: “First this happened, then that happened, then this happened, then that happened…” all the way until the writer gets to “…and it all ended when this happened.”
This is a natural way to want to chronicle events – it’s the way we tend to tell stories to family members or friends. Here’s an example:
“Do you know what happened just now at the store? I ran into John. I was wheeling my cart down the frozen food aisle and there he was, standing with his cart in front of him. He had just taken a carton of ice cream out of the freezer and he was reading it when I wheeled right up to him and said, ‘John, is that you?’ He looked up and saw me and dropped the carton of ice cream right on the floor! Then he gave me a big hug and said he couldn’t believe it. We talked for a few minutes and then I told him I had to get going, so we hugged again and said good-bye.”
First this happened, then that happened, and then this happened…
This is what Gornick would call the “situation.” Now, if you know the person who is relating the above event (which I actually just made up), you might understand the meaning, or emotional context, or “story”behind the event. Why was it a big deal that this person ran into John? Why did John drop the ice cream? What does it mean that they ran into each other? Why is it important, and what should it make me think about? How and why should I relate to this happening?
Unless you know the context of this event and what’s going on for the “narrator,” it’s hard to answer these questions. This person ran into John, he dropped the ice cream, they talked, and it ended. So what?
What we’re asking is: What’s the story? What is the meaning behind this, and why does it matter?
Writers of creative nonfiction look for the “story,” or the meaning, behind a situation or event, adding another layer to their narratives. As Vivian Gornick notes (and as Michael Steinberg quotes in his piece), “Every work [of literature] has both a situation and a story. 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” (13). It is this layer that is more likely to attract readers and touch their minds and emotions.
Let’s see how a writer might relate the situation above after adding in some of the “story.” By adding this deeper layer, we can also examine how a story can surprise the reader in ways that the situation, which might not be that extraordinary, might not:
“I was feeling particularly down today when I decided to stop by the supermarket. I had been working all week at my dull job, I was worried about the bills I’ve been having trouble paying for the past six months, and I was facing another weekend with nothing planned but housework and raking the leaves in the backyard.
I was preoccupied with my despondent thoughts — hardly noticing anyone or anything around me — when I started down the frozen food aisle. Yes, frozen foods. Pathetic, right? I don’t have anyone to cook for, so I just throw frozen food into the microwave every night. This is actually the thought that was crossing my mind when I looked up and saw someone who looked familiar standing near the ice cream freezer. Then I realized it was John. John, who just six months ago was lying in a hospital bed attached to all of those machines, with the doctors telling us he might not live. Now here he was reading the ingredients on an ice cream carton, probably because the doctors have told him he has to be careful about what he eats. But you know what? He looked great. He’s lost weight, but he looked okay. He looked strong.
I can’t tell you what it meant to me to see John standing there, in the supermarket, doing something so normal. When he was sick, I visited him every day. I knew Mary would have wanted me to do that. Before she passed away, one of the last things she said to me was, “Please, will you make sure that John is okay?” I promised her I would. So when John got sick, even though I didn’t know him very well, I decided I had to be there for him.
When I saw him in the supermarket I wheeled my cart up to him and said, “John, is that you?” I still wasn’t sure. I mean, he looked so good.
He looked up and saw me, and when he did he dropped that carton of ice cream right on the floor! He just smiled and threw his arms around me. He said he couldn’t believe it, because he’d been trying to reach me for weeks and hadn’t been able to. I’d forgotten to give him my new address and number when I moved; well, the truth is I didn’t give them to him because I didn’t want him to feel obligated to stay in touch.
We talked for a few minutes and he told me he’s doing great. He said that my visits in the hospital had meant the world to him and had really helped him get through that time. He said all kinds of nice things and gave me his number and made me promise to stay in touch. I felt kind of embarrassed. I’m not comfortable with people giving me too much praise. Finally, I just told him I had to get going. He hugged me tight again and we said good-bye. I was so flustered after that. I just bought what was already in my cart and left the store.
Before I ran into John, I was feeling so badly about myself and my life. But you know, I guess I’ve done one good thing. Maybe even more than one thing. Maybe every life touches other lives, no matter how trivial the day-to-day might seem. And maybe, just maybe, that’s something to feel good about even when life feels so tough.
OK, so I made all of that up, too, and I wrapped it up a little too neatly with kind of a trite Chinese-fortune-cookie “message.” But I did that on purpose here to illustrate a point – that this vignette gets much more interesting (I think) when you find out WHY this person felt the need to tell this story, what the context of the event was, and what it meant, emotionally, to the “narrator.” I somewhat forcibly took the extra step (which one would do more artfully in an actual piece of writing) of drawing some kind of universal truth from the writer’s emotional journey so that the reader had something to relate to and think about.
It’s not as easy as it might seem to find the meaning, or story, or, as Michael Steinberg calls it, the “inner story” in events or in a personal essay or memoir. Finding a way to artfully add reflection — to express the thinking process of the writer on the page without beating the reader over the head with it (or sounding self-involved or whiny) is one of the most challenging things an essayist or memoirist must try to do. Without that center, a piece of writing feels somewhat, well…meaningless. It’s just a situation.
And what we all really love is a good story.
Next week: Memory, Imagination, and Truth in Creative Nonfiction
Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.
Root, Robert L., and Michael Steinberg, eds. The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.