Gornick’s Situation and Story

Memoir Writing

This post is one of 26 I am writing for the A-Z Challenge on the subject of writing a memoir. I’m not an expert in writing memoirs, but I’m exploring the topic with thoughts about writing one, and am happy to share the fruits of my exploration.



In her book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick differentiates between these two easily-confused terms. Actually, it’s not the terms that people confuse, because as far as I know Gornick is the only one who uses them. It’s the concept that there are two things going on.

Gornick’s “situation” is the collection of scenes, the where, who and what. The story is the emotional journey the narrator travelled while traversing the scenes. This is what the reader really wants to understand. Without a story, the situation has no interest, or not much.

To illustrate a major point in the book, Gornick describes a speech that moved her while others didn’t. When she analysed the reasons why this particular speech was different from the rest, she came to the conclusion that the speaker was able to choose who she needed to be for the purpose of the speech. That is, out of all her roles in her life, she chose the one that fitted the theme of her speech and stuck to it. She says, “Because the narrator knew who was speaking, she also knew why she was speaking.”

Who am I for the purpose of my memoir? I think I have to be a person who has been affected by social anxiety. The fact that I’m a wife, a mother, a sister, a cousin, a friend, a maths graduate, a former computer programmer, a dancer, a chief cook and bottle washer and more is only relevant if any of these roles have some bearing on social anxiety, or if social anxiety has affected these roles.

Do you know who you are?