An interview with Vivian Gornick about the problem with writing programs, the memoir’s potential for dishonesty, and finding her way as a writer.
Jessica Gross | Longreads | May 2015 | 17 minutes (4,223 words)
I first encountered the work of the memoirist, critic, and journalist Vivian Gornick in graduate school when we were assigned The Situation and the Story, her handbook on personal writing. Gornick explains that the writer must create out of her real self a separate narrative persona. The narrator has wisdom and distance the writer may not, and can craft a meaningful story out of the raw details of life. This slim book cracked open my understanding of what it means to write.
In Fierce Attachments, her 1987 memoir, Gornick wields her narrative persona to construct an incisive, nuanced portrait of her conflicted bond with her mother. She describes the Bronx tenements where she grew up, the early death of her father, the complex relationship with their neighbor Nettie and, at the center of it all, a struggle with her codependent maternal bond. Her new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, a collage of interactions in the New York City streets and with her longtime friend Leonard, is a meditation on friendship, her status as an “Odd Woman”—a second-wave feminist—and her place in urban life.
We met at a restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Gornick was staying for spring break before she returned to the University of Iowa where she teaches at the nonfiction program. It was sleeting out, and Gornick asked me if her mascara was running, then ordered a mezzo plate and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. She began by telling me how much she hates teaching.
Why do you teach so much?
I don’t do it often at all anymore. In this case, they offered me too much money, and I felt I couldn’t say no. But I was wrong: I should have said no.
Why is that?
I can’t live for four months in a place like Iowa City anymore. I’m really too old for that. I’m not even sure I do need the money, but you always feel you need the money. I always taught just to make a living, and I made myself a good teacher of writing; I certainly made myself a good editor. But this time around I saw that I am so deeply out of sympathy with the whole enterprise that it’s immoral for me to teach.Continue reading “A Woman on the Margins”