The Situation and the Story

The Art of Personal Narrative

New Edition for Writers, Teachers, and Students; Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A guide to the art of personal writing, by the author of Fierce Attachments and The End of the Novel of Love

All narrative writing must pull from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver a bit of wisdom. In a story or a novel the "I" who tells this tale can be, and often is, an unreliable narrator but in nonfiction the reader must always be persuaded that the narrator is speaking truth.

How does one pull from one's own boring, agitated self the truth-speaker who will tell the story a personal narrative needs to tell? That is the question The Situation and the Story asks--and answers. Taking us on a reading tour of some of the best memoirs and essays of the past hundred years, Gornick traces the changing idea of self that has dominated the century, and demonstrates the enduring truth-speaker to be found in the work of writers as diverse as Edmund Gosse, Joan Didion, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, or Marguerite Duras.

This book, which grew out of fifteen years teaching in MFA programs, is itself a model of the lucid intelligence that has made Gornick one of our most admired writers of nonfiction. In it, she teaches us to write by teaching us how to read: how to recognize truth when we hear it in the writing of others and in our own.


Read an Excerpt

The Situation and the Story
oneTHE ESSAYIf William Hazlitt hadn't awakened each morning crawling inside his own skin, he could not have written "On the Pleasure of Hating." If Virginia Woolf didn't have difficulty attaching herself to life, she would not have written "The Death of the Moth." If James Baldwin wasn't in perpetual violent struggle to bring the black and the white inside himself under control, there would be no "Notes of a Native Son." These pieces are the work of writers engaged at the deepest level with the essay. The form itself has released them into purposeful innerliness.


Praise for The Situation and the Story

"The Situation and the Story [is] an elegant, concise, unlocking of the mystery of personal narrative. It's changed my thinking already and should be on every writer's bookshelf."
--Elaine Showalter , author of The Madwoman in the Attic

"A wonderful illumination of some of the best and most moving
writers of personal narrative, by a writer whose own graceful style and
exemplary forthrightness make this a most rewarding book for both the
college classroom and one's own favorite armchair."
--Lydia Davis

"Vivian Gornick is an extraordinary writer of personal narrative. In her articulate and compelling new book, we learn about the craft, about Gornick specifically, and about the writer's life generally. Her incisive and vivid blend of story and information conveys the essence and the challenge of the creative nonfiction genre and is an example of what the genre can do."
--Lee Gutkind, author of The Art of Creative Nonfiction

"Vivian Gornick writes with distilled wisdom and practiced accuracy. I trust her intuition absolutely."
--Sven Birkert

"We have long needed a book like this, which would put the field of creative non-fiction into thoughtful perspective, X-ray its secrets, and raise its standards. Vivian Gornick has done all that and more, producing a brilliant exegesis that is both analysis and exemplar of the difficult art of personal narrative. She brings a laser-like focus to her subject, while complicating it at every turn with moral nuance. The writing is both eloquent and elegant; the sentences have bite; the whole thing is an exhilarating read."
--Phillip Lopate

Reviews from Goodreads



  • New Edition for Writers, Teachers, and Students; Vivian Gornick

  • Vivian Gornick's books include Fierce Attachments, Approaching Eye Level, and The End of the Novel of Love. She lives in New York.


Available Formats and Book Details

The Situation and the Story

The Art of Personal Narrative

New Edition for Writers, Teachers, and Students; Vivian Gornick