The Situation and the Story
by Joan Leegant
I recently met with a writer to talk about a draft of a memoir essay she’d begun some years before. It was about a weekend trip she’d taken by herself to one of the San Juan Islands. Her teenage children were visiting their father in another state, and the writer, who had a day job doing something other than writing, was using her time on the island to walk, reflect, view marine life, and, yes, write. In the draft, her prose was clear and evocative—the island came alive as did her chance encounters with interesting strangers—and she wrote movingly about feelings that were tugging at her during her stay, some manifested in dreams. Yet despite the piece’s strengths, we spent our hour trying to parse what the essay really was about.
What were we looking for? Why weren’t we satisfied with what the piece was explicitly describing (and doing so very nicely): the scenic drives, the telephone call with the kids, the whale sightings, the moody weather, the unexpected conversations?
Vivian Gornick, in her book The Situation and the Story, puts it this way: “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.”
The thing one has come to say. There’s the rub: often one doesn’t know what one has come to say until one has said it. This isn’t due to a failure of intelligence or introspection by the writer. This is because the act of writing is itself an act of discovery. And because, in the case of a personal essay or memoir, we live life on two planes: the inner and the outer. One plane may suggest the other—we knock over our water glass when something is bothering us (the inner life affecting the outer), and the misty view of the Sound on a gray day evokes a melancholy that’s been tucked within (the outer life knocking at the inner)—but more often, we aren’t aware of our constant navigation between these two worlds we inhabit, all day, every day. Sometimes the business of living (job, loading the cart at Safeway) requires so much focus on the outer world that we don’t remember the inner life is even there.
Writing, like other arts, if we pursue it fully to locate “the thing one has come to say,” allows us to experience, if only temporarily, a momentary alignment of these two worlds. This is when we can discover the “story” percolating beneath the “situation.” The writer, chronicling her weekend away, opens herself up to the insight and wisdom the weekend offers her in the whale sightings and walks and encounters with strangers. She uncovers the meaning and, in doing so, her two worlds briefly merge. They shimmer in tandem long enough for her to capture the meaning in words before they separate once again and shimmer apart.
Write about an event from your life (a “situation”). Then ask yourself: what’s the “story” (the “emotional experience that preoccupies” you: the “insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say”)? Go back and see where you can bring that out in the draft.
Dispatches is a weekly posting on our blog that is written based on meetings that take place in our writers-in-residence office. Make an appointment with Joan for fiction or nonfiction advice on her scheduling calendar.