A Woman on the Margins

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.

In what way are you out of sympathy?

I think the writing programs are illegitimate.

Because they focus so much on craft?

Craft, craft, craft. Yes. Because they are a cash cow, because they are indiscriminate in their admissions, because they need to constantly keep feeding themselves with mobs of people who are either mediocre or less. There are a few talented people at one end and there are a few people who are so bad you don’t know how on earth they got in at the other end. And in the middle is this mass of people who have tiny amounts of writing capacity, nothing will come—

Even at a place like Iowa?

Even at a place like Iowa. Or years ago, I was teaching at Bread Loaf [a summer graduate program at Middlebury College] and I thought that was just intolerable, really intolerable. The whole place has this atmosphere of utter boosterism. Everybody is great, everything is brilliant, everybody is wonderful and they clap and scream at each other’s readings and I thought it was beyond the beyond. This woman from The New Yorker was there and at the end of the week, she asked, “How are you liking it?” I said, “This place is a fucking parody of these programs.” She put it in The New Yorker and they disinvited me for life.

It sounds like you wouldn’t feel so sad about that.

No, I didn’t feel anything at all.

Your book is called The Odd Woman and the City. Can you talk about that phrase, “the Odd Woman”?

It has been the phrase in my head ever since I read Gissing’s The Odd Women in the ’70s. I thought he nailed it, and it became my mantra. It is the term that I have always found the most congenial for my generation of feminists. We were probably the most psychologically self-conscious generation of feminists ever. All generations, like all great writers, have psychological wisdom, but to concentrate on that, especially all those internal self-divisions—nobody before us really did it as much as we did. And I did it in spades, since the very beginning. I remember Ellen Willis and I were both working at the Village Voice in those years, and she got hooked on women’s sexuality. I didn’t give a shit about women’s sexuality. I cared about work.

Why not sex?

I never felt repressed. I had orgasms easily. It just wasn’t on my mind. It wasn’t where I lived. Experiencing myself through sexual love was not where I lived. I did it like everybody else, blissed out like everybody else, but it didn’t feel like self-definition. I was sensual, but without being a sensualist, and it was never an organizing principle for me.

Because it had not ever been something that was difficult for you?

Right. So for thousands of us, and certainly for me, the subject was work. The question of not having made myself a serious worker became and remained my deepest sense of what had been done to women: we weren’t raised to know that you had to work, whether you wanted to or not. You had to work. And in the end, that you need to work became men’s definition of being human, and they profited from it, and we lost.

Rhoda Nunn, the woman in The Odd Women, feels the same way, only she is terrified of losing herself sexually. Now, in the nineteenth century, you had a right to be terrified of it, because men exercised will up the kazoo. For a woman to lose herself—in other words, to run the risk of feeling deeply humiliated if a man left her—that went so deep for any woman who had become anything of a person in her own right. She dreads losing herself to him. She dreads it so much she’s willing to lose it. I thought, that’s us.

I’m curious about the word “odd,” because it suggests outsiderness and alienation, too. Do you feel a kinship with that phrase in a personal sense, or solely as a description of your generation of feminists?

Being odd? Well, I guess it’s both, but I generally mean it in the framework of feminism. I don’t generally describe myself to myself as an odd woman with a small “o.” No, when I use the term I mean it in that sense. In other words, we are the women who can’t make our peace with the world as it is.

Years ago a relative of mine, a young woman, was heterosexual and then homosexual and then heterosexual, she didn’t know which. During a lesbian period of hers, my mother said to me, “Is she a lesbian?” I said, “I don’t know, you have to ask her. Why are you asking me that?” She said, “Because she’s never with a man.” I said, “Well, Ma, look at me. Look how long it’s been since I’ve been with a man!” She said, “Oh, you!” She knew I wasn’t a lesbian and she knew at the same time I was what she called such a difficult woman. So I call it Odd. There are a lot of people like me who are alone because we have never been able to make our peace with things as they are. That’s exactly how I mean it, nothing else.

The book is structured around your interactions with your longtime friend, Leonard, a gay man. How did you decide to make your friendship the framework?

It was my intention for many years to write a book about our friendship, because I saw it as paradigmatic. He was gay, I was me, and we lived the lives we lived. We met in feminist and gay politics many years ago. In the book, I know him longer than I do in real life, but it’s long enough. Thirty years is long enough. And I always thought ours was a paradigmatic friendship. Years ago, a man like Leonard would never have come out. He probably would’ve gotten married and suffered horribly his whole life and been a terrible husband. But now he came out. And I would have been an unhappy wife.

Well, you were, twice.

I was, yeah, yeah. But I would have stayed married, no doubt. So we recognized ourselves as complicated beneficiaries of this time. And I was going to write a book about it, but it turned out I had a situation, but I didn’t have a story. I didn’t really know what to do with it. And then suddenly, one day, I found myself writing one of these incidents about the city and I thought, that’s it, I’ll braid them together. It shifted from me and Leonard to the city and friendship in general. Then I felt excited and good, and as soon as you feel good you know you’re on the right track. But still, it took me a long time. It took me around two years when I thought it would take six months. It’s always like that, though.

That seems fast.

Well, not when you’re sitting there every day. You put in enough dead time sitting there, depressed and not a thought coming, your head full of fog and cotton wool, and it always seems long.

You have written a great deal about your mother, and very honestly, but you’ve never written about her death. Why is that?

I don’t have anything to say. I said it all in Fierce Attachments. My mother’s death did not impinge upon me as our relationship did in life. When my mother died I really went under a black cloud, but I knew exactly why: it was because we had loved each other so badly. But I knew who she was and I knew who I was and there was no guilt, there was no anxiety. And the fact of the matter is, I didn’t miss her. That was the reality. Not that she is not with me all the time. I’m always thinking I see her, and I used to dream about her. In these dreams, she was like a child and I was the mother.

Which was the reality of your relationship in certain ways, too, right? As you describe it, in Fierce Attachments, you were caring for her when she was mourning your father.

Yes, yes, certainly. But I’ve been told that’s quite common when you’re mourning properly; I’ve been told that what happened to me is Freud’s notion of actual mourning. But anyway, when my mother died, I went into this black cloud and I got really deeply depressed. So depressed I couldn’t take any pleasure in anything. And then, after six months or so, it passed. I didn’t think about her. I deliberately didn’t think about her for about a year. And then one day in the spring I was crossing Madison Square Park and I suddenly saw her sitting on a bench we used to meet at often. And I said, “Ma!” And then I realized she was dead. It wasn’t her.

You said that aloud?

Yeah. “Ma!” as I’m walking. Somebody turned around. I realized it wasn’t her. And then I burst out laughing. I thought, “Oh, you bitch, you’re gonna be with me forever!” [We both laugh] And in a way, that’s exactly what has happened. I’ve internalized her. I think I see her, and I feel warmth and affection for the ghost. And I’ve been told that that’s internal freedom. I am free of her.

I remember things that I did badly. I remember ways in which I acted badly and that can still make me cringe, but I’m only cringing over myself, I’m not cringing over her. But sex and death are not my subjects.

What about money?

It’s meaningless to me. I found, as the years went on, I was very lucky not to have a bourgeois bone in my body. I don’t want anything, and that has really stood me in good stead. If you’re a writer and you’re living on the margin and you hunger for the so-called good things in life, for material stuff, you’re really in trouble. And I discovered I don’t. All I ever wanted was to just make enough to stay alive. So yeah, sex, money—and age and death, to my amazement, don’t hold my attention either.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. I’m really lucky. It’s just so boring.

That’s a radical thing to say, that one’s own death is boring.

Is it? No. It doesn’t arouse my anxiety or hold my interest. It’s not generative material for me.

In The Situation and the Story, you describe the distinction between the writer and the narrative persona she constructs. You have experience in psychoanalysis, which aims in part to enable the patient to get critical distance from her own raw experience. To me, this seems like a parallel, and that you’d need to have a certain amount of self-reflection and remove from your own experience in order to be able to do that on the page. But you hold that the construction of the narrative persona does not depend on the writer’s self-knowledge.

Well, look at all the great fiction writers who have such brilliance about the characters they create, but know very little about themselves. Here’s a perfect example. Doris Lessing is a great writer in my view, but also very limited in some ways. There are novels and stories she’s written that are extraordinarily perceptive about men and women, but when she writes her own memoirs, she is stupid. She doesn’t know how to create out of her own unsurrogated self a narrator who knows how to be honest. So her memoirs are dishonest in the sense that where self-knowledge is required, it doesn’t work.

Now, in Fierce Attachments, I created the daughter. That daughter really did become as honest as she could be, because she had no fear. She did not fear what was required of her in encountering her mother, or their neighbor Nettie. She was free in some way.

In a way that you, in reality, were not.

You could ask me a question that would make me blush, and you would say, “Gee, you’ve written about stuff like this, why can’t you say it now?” And I’d say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” It is a funny, odd thing. It really is. What is required is that the writer know herself in relation to the subject.

Lillian Hellman was an extraordinarily successful playwright from about the ’30s through the ’60s, and a big time Hollywood screenwriter and a communist, too. Around the ’70s, she started writing memoirs. An Unfinished Woman was a startling success; everyone in the world was declaring it the most honest, searingly honest—they love those words, “searingly honest.” And I was young and I read her memoirs and I thought, “searingly honest. ”

Years later, I decided to teach An Unfinished Woman to MFA students in Arizona who had never heard of Lillian Hellman, they didn’t know what the Cold War was, they never heard of anything, they knew nothing. But they read this book and I reread it and I was shocked at how dishonest it felt. They said, “I don’t like her, I don’t trust her.” “Why?” “She always comes out looking good and everybody else doesn’t. It always seems like she’s trying to tell you she’s the smartest person in the room.”

She had a very theatrical manner, but even if you didn’t know anything you could tell she was whitewashing it so that she came out looking a lot better than she looked in life. So she is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. She has the patina of truth. She seems to be telling you the raw truth, but in fact she is concerned with her dignity more than anything else.

Purchase the book.

Purchase the book.

Much of both The Odd Woman and the City and Fierce Attachments take place on your long walks throughout New York City. Can you describe your walking style?

For many years I did a twenty-minute mile.

Do you put on sneakers?

Yeah, yeah. I’ve never strolled. I never set out to encounter, I set out to walk. I set out to dispel daily depression. Every afternoon I get low-spirited, and one day I discovered the walk. I had some place to go on the Upper East Side, and I lived downtown on 12th Street. I decided to walk on impulse and it was three miles and it took an hour and I thought, “Oh, this is great, I feel so much better.” Lots of people know this, but I never knew it until I just stumbled on it. And then I began to make deliberate use of it. So I am always walking somewhere. I set myself a destination, and then things happen in the street.

Do you pity the person who walks around with headphones in?

I don’t pity, but I dislike intensely what’s happened, that everyone is walking around with a cell phone or texting or using earplugs. It’s really so shocking to me because they don’t hear anything. It seems very dangerous.

In the book, you describe drawing much of your social interaction from the urban crowd. But I think it’s equally possible to feel quite isolated in the city, with no attachment to the strangers around you. How did you come to see the city as this interconnected web of people?

I am urban to the core. I grew up in the Bronx, in a thick working class neighborhood. I have never experienced anything remotely like a street absent of people. The stores were always filled with people, the kids hung out at the corner. We came from homes that were not pretty and not good to be in, and the only reality for us was each other on the street. It was from the street full of people that I know I became a writer. I have always enjoyed so deeply the encounters between strangers in the street.

There were several moments, reading, when I laughed aloud at the interactions you describe. I wondered if somebody who didn’t live in a city would laugh.

Believe me, they don’t laugh aloud. They don’t know what to make of it. They don’t see the depth, the acuteness of those exchanges, of what they reveal and how much they reveal. And how sturdy and marvelous is humor, how varied is the human response to crisis. And what a joy that is.

I never, ever have failed to feel revived, refreshed, revitalized at something that happens in the street. That book came out of thirty years of notes. Half of what’s in that book was written twenty years ago. So many of those encounters, I just typed up and saved in folders here and there, which I never threw out. “What are you doing with this?” “Nothing. But someday…” And sure enough, someday arrived.

Would you have felt very upset if you hadn’t found a way to use these notes in a piece of writing?

Yes. A good part of the satisfaction of this book was my finding myself able to make use of all this stuff, which I found just ingenious and enjoyable.

At a talk at Goucher College in 2003, you revealed that you had taken some liberties with facts in Fierce Attachments, which stirred up controversy. Could you talk about what liberties you think are warranted to get at the emotional truth that you’re looking for?

My idea of a memoir is obviously not the idea of people like the woman at Goucher who ran off to announce that I was a liar. I wasn’t admitting to anything in that talk. I was describing what I thought was perfectly legitimate usage, which was the composition of a scene delivering narrative drive rather than factuality. The most important thing was for that scene to play out.

I don’t think of that as lying. I think of it as composition, and I think of the memoir as a legitimate literary genre which has to be composed. If you look at memoirs from time immemorial, a man in his fifties will repeat a whole conversation the family had when he was eight years old. What? He’s making it up. And there’s nothing wrong with it.

The only thing that I do believe is owed is not to make up anything out of whole cloth. Don’t claim, “I grew up in a castle,” or “I grew up in a mud flat.” Otherwise, it seems obvious to me. A memoir is your experience and what you are responsible for is the shaping of that experience. And this kind of writing needs an educated readership. A memoir should be the shaping of a single piece of experience and the memoirist should have the right to shape it in any way he wants except, I think, to make things up. And the other very important thing is it’s obvious to the reader that the writer is the narrator. The narrator is not a made up figure. And that narrator has to be reliable. I believe that really firmly.

Like George Orwell, for instance. Now Orwell himself was a son of a bitch. He was really a bad guy. He was narrow, grudging, sexist; he was a lot of terrible things. But when he sat down to write, the narrator he had created took over, and that creature is responsible for all the great essays that we so admire him for. That’s a perfect example of making a persona. What matters in Orwell is that he has persuaded us he is a truth speaker. Without the narrative persona, there would be no pleasure in any of the writing.

Well, it would be just like life.

Yeah, right. It would be like a police blotter, or a transcript from an analyst’s office.

Pity the analyst.

Pity the analyst is right.

Is there anything that you regret writing in Fierce Attachments, or that you would have done differently?

Oh, no, no. Fierce Attachments? No. I hardly ever look at it, but every now and then I look at it and I think, “God, did I write that? That’s pretty good.” The only book I have ever regretted is a book I wrote many years ago called The Romance of American Communism. That was my true apprenticeship. That’s a book in which I did not know how to solve writing problems and I ignored that fact. Instead of solving them, I let it be published, and I regretted it bitterly.

When you write as well as you can, you’re making terms. No matter what happens after that, you’ve done your job. But I didn’t make terms with that book, and everybody hated it and humiliated me in reviews. It didn’t take me long to see they were right.

But could you have come to that understanding without having written that book and working it through?

No, I guess not. I guess not.

It sounds less like you were willfully ignoring these things than that you just didn’t know yet.

That’s right. I mean, I did the best I could. I used to know a guy who was a professional seducer—there wasn’t a woman he met that he didn’t feel compelled to seduce. But I grew up with him, I knew him well. And he once said to me, “You know, it’s not as easy as it looks.” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You know, it’s really just as awkward for me the first time. I often wish we could go to bed on the fifth date instead of the first!” I wish I could start on the fifth date. I feel like that about The Romance of American Communism. I wish I could have started past it. But indeed you are absolutely right. There is no way out of that apprenticeship.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.