Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

In her short book called The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick describes one of the most useful and important ideas about writing that I know:

“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.” 

I just critiqued a novel where Gornick’s concept seemed particularly relevant.  On the whole it’s an amazing novel, but I had a clear sense towards the end of where it went off the track, and why.  It was because the writer lost track of the “story,” and just wrote “situation.” Without the “story,” the situation became merely material.  Even though the material at that point was dramatic and even riveting, it lacked the real power that comes from the writer carrying through with the story under the situation.

It can be a little confusing because Gornick’s not using “story” here in the traditional narrative sense. The way I understand Gornick’s “story” is that it is like an interior narrative, the internal journey that the protagonist is experiencing or undertaking which the external action–the situation–the plot– dramatizes and plays out.  This journey is psychological, emotional, spiritual or all three.  It is what the reader is actually tracking, even as his or her attention is captured by the external situation and action.  It’s what gives shape and meaning to the situation. 

Gornick gives this example:

In a poem called “In the Waiting Room” Elizabeth Bishop describes herself at the age of seven, during the First World War, sitting in a dentist’s office, turning the pages of National Geographic, listening to the muted cries of pain her timid aunt utters from within. That’s the situation. The story is a child’s first experience of isolation: her own, her aunt’s, and that of the world.

Story here sounds a lot like theme.  And it is like theme, but not static the way the term theme can imply.  Like theme, it is the “about” of a work, what the piece is really about, not just what happens.   But it is dynamically interwoven with what happens.  It’s what tells the writer what to put in and what to leave out, and it’s what allows the reader to interpret the writing.  Without it the reader (and writer) may have the experience but miss the meaning.  It’s what the reader grasps intuitively as meaningful and important, the big stuff (the child’s first experience of isolation)—not just the surface situation (a trip to the dentist). It’s relatively easy to write what happens.  But where the rubber hits the road is when the writer is also writing story: what the piece is really about, what the “emotional experience” is.  It’s where one arrives at “the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”

Sometimes the writer just knows what the story is, deep inside.  It is just there, a given. Maybe the writer has processed the material deeply over time, either consciously or unconsciously.  It’s available, without the writer having to grapple with it; the writer has integrated situation and story internally and it is fused already in the writing.  Other times the writer only comes to the story through the process of writing the material.  Gradually more and more comes together as the writer discovers what the piece is truly about.  The most successful works of literature are ones where the situation and story are both functioning in concert with each other.  We need both.

In my client’s novel, in addition to what happened in the plot of the novel, I was tracking his “story.”  To me the question that permeated the novel was “Would the protagonist live or die?”  I don’t mean in a literal sense, though that did have some bearing.  I meant would he be okay?  Would he find a way to go forward in life, after a shattering tragedy?  I was deeply invested in this question, and when the writer stopped carrying that thread through, the novel went off the track.  He put in a chapter that contained the character and situation, but had no “story.”  It didn’t continue to develop and advance the internal question that I had been following.  I wasn’t even aware that that was what I was following until I got to a chapter that dropped the ball.  But I suddenly felt how the material went slack, stopped functioning, even though there was plenty of surface tension.  The writer had lost touch with what the book was really about.  He had lost touch with what was at stake.  He had dropped his story.

In the novel I just reviewed, Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín, the situation is the young woman, Eilis Lacey, leaving Ireland to have a better life in America, and her resulting experiences and choices (you can read a longer synopsis in my post about the novel).  But the story is one of identity and self-definition.  Who is she and who will she become?  How will her experiences shape her and how will her choices define and change her?  While we’re interested in and engaged by her experiences, what we’re really following underneath the surface events (whether we recognize it or not; doesn’t matter) is what will happen to Eilis?  Not just will she live in Ireland or Brooklyn but what will that choice mean and how will it shape the rest of her life?

Who will she be, what will her life be and what will her feelings about that life be? Everything in novel drives towards posing and answering those questions and once they are answered, the novel is finished.  Tóibín has selected and shaped the material with that story ever in mind.  It is always ticking below the surface, below the situation.  We accumulate and track it because we read, after all, not just to know what happens, but to know what it means. 

For the writer the point is that without story, as Gornick uses it, the situation becomes simply material. Unshaped, unfunctioning, unsatisfying.  Every writer has experienced that joyful feeling when the writing is “on,” when things are working, when the voice is right, when what to put in and what to leave out is clear.  Those moments are what keep us writing.  Those are the times when the story and the situation are working together.