Are we still ‘fessing up on Fridays? If we are then I will readily admit to having written nothing this week, beyond a blog post and a number of placatory emails to grumpy or bewildered academics. Perhaps I should count them, but to me it’s the sound of the barrel being scraped. A combination of fatigue, work and a bored teenager on holiday have kept me away (of the three of these the fatigue is the only factor to really count) and I hate it when I am not getting on with writing. I quickly start to feel antsy and aimless.
Anyway, to perk myself up I’ve been reading The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick, which is ostensibly a writer’s companion to the art of the personal essay and the memoir, but is in fact a searching account of how to place the self in writing, drawing on examples from some of the classic authors. I think it’s wonderful. Gornick’s main line of argument is that every piece of personal writing (that works) contains two essential elements: a vivid representation of the situation being written about, in all its many dimensions and implications, and then the story, the personal journey towards enlightenment or understanding that grew out of those particular circumstances. If these two dimensions are fully realized, then the writer will never lose sight of why the story is being told and, even more importantly for Gornick, who is telling it. Fictional narrators don’t have to tell us the truth, she tells us, in fact their unreliability can itself be part of the captivating essence of the story. But in non-fiction the narrator has to be completely grounded, completely coherent, or else we cannot trust them to deliver us a truth we can believe in, and without that the pleasure of the reading is lost.
But finding the situation and the story, isolating and understanding the person who is going to tell it, can sometimes be the work of a lifetime. Gornick recounts the story of J. R. Ackerley, who spent thirty years putting together the story of his father, a man who was the soul of conservative respectability during his lifetime, but who was discovered, after his death, to have been keeping a second family containing a wife and three daughters on the other side of London. J. R. Ackerley, who had been keeping his own private life as a man of letters and a homosexual hidden well away from his parent’s eyes, was completely dumbfounded. And at the same time he became captivated and compelled to research his father’s life. But why did it take him thirty years, Gornick wonders? And the reply comes: because what he had hold of was only the situation; it would take him three decades to elucidate the truth he wanted to tell from it. Gornick then neatly maps out his thought patterns:
‘Ackerley was, he thought, only putting together a puzzle of family life. All I have to do, he said to himself, is get the sequence right and the details correct and everything will fall into place. But nothing fell into place. After a while he thought, I’m not describing a presence, I’m describing an absence. This is the tale of an unlived relationship. Who was he? Who was I? Why did we keep missing each other? After another while he realized, I always thought my father didn’t want to know me. Now I see I didn’t want to know him. And then he realized, it’s not him I haven’t wanted to know, it’s myself.’
Ackerley himself, Gornick adds, comes across in narratives about him as an unpleasant type, but the persona he uses as a narrator is a wonderful creation; a strong, honest, unflinching voice who manages to find the correct distance from the story. She writes, ‘the reader feels him actively working to strip down the anxiety until he can get to something hard and true beneath the smooth surface of sentimental self-regard. It took Ackerley thirty years to clarify the voice that could tell his story – thirty years to gain detachment, make an honest man of himself, become a trustworthy narrator.’ There are so many stumbling blocks on the way to telling a tale with clarity, insight and engagement, Gornick suggests; the urge to romanticize, or to distort, the kind of voice that moans or blames, an insufficient awareness of what matters in the context, confusion as to what the real goal of the story might be. Essentially the problems lie with there being too much life still in the art. Art is the process of refinement and discipline that leads to a kernel of meaning being extracted from the mass of bewildering experience. A piece of personal writing that works recreates the swirling, perplexing experience of reality, but the voice holds and guides the reader through it, leading them onwards to a place of understanding and safety. And that’s the key to reading pleasure.
Recounting the story of a rafting experience, Gornick identifies a general principle in the way she accesses creativity. ‘I began to see that in the course of daily life when, by my own lights, I act badly – confrontational, challenging, dismissive – I am out there on that raft before I have found the narrator who can bring under control the rushing onslaught of my own internal flux. When I am doing better, I am able to see that the flux is a situation. […] I become interested then in my own existence only as a means of penetrating the situation in hand. I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.’ Reading that I had my own epiphany. I hate being foreclosed access to my writing voice precisely because it’s the voice that makes sense of things for me. That finds enough distance from a situation, that gives me a persona who will deal with the flux. And at the same time, I then have to recognize that chronic fatigue affects me because it unstitches my sense of self and plunges me into unmediated experience. Chronic fatigue is a situation from which it’s hard to extract the story that matters. But what I like most about Gornick’s account here is the way she suggests that the narrating voice comes and goes and is infinitely flexible. It’s a lifeline, a golden thread, a guiding rope that will always be there, if you look hard enough and have patience and composure. The story will always emerge, given enough space and time.