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Monique, my wife and beautiful student of human needs, emotions and nature, called my attention to a post today that is well worth sharing. Maria Popova, the intellect behind Brain Pickings, discusses Vivian Gornick's book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal narrative. Popova describes Gornick's contention, a true one, that key to bringing personal storytelling alive and presenting our stories in a way that enlivens them for readers is one of layering and getting the small details right so that the larger truth hits the reader incidentally rather than like a sledgehammer swung by the writer.
The key quote from Gornick's book is of her describing a funeral for a doctor. One person after another stood to remember the deceased and all were memorable in their own way, but the story that hit the highest emotional cord came from a forty-year-old doctor who'd studied under the deceased.
Gornick describes her words:
"The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred, one that had layered into it the descriptive feel of a young person’s apprenticeship, medical practices in a time of social change, and a divided attachment to a mentor who could bring herself only to correct, never to praise. This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that had stirred me; caused me to feel, with powerful immediacy, not only the actuality of the woman being remembered but — even more vividly — the presence of the one doing the remembering. The speaker’s effort to recall with exactness how things had been between herself and the dead woman — her open need to make sense of a strong but vexing relationship — had caused her to say so much that I became aware at last of all that was not being said; that which could never be said. I felt acutely the warm, painful inadequacy of human relations. This feeling resonated in me. It was the resonance that had lingered on, exactly as it does when the last page is turned of a book that reaches the heart."
In all, it is truth, cutting to the heart f the experience so that, as Hemingway said, we bleed on the page. It is not about describing in graphic detail a traumatic or beautiful event, but describing in graphic and honest detail how the event made us feel.
All people have the ability of empathy. Some use it more than others and like a muscle it is better developed, but we all have it. The writer's job as we tell a story is to build empathy with the character.
This does not always mean sympathy. We don't have to like the character or believe they are right or good. But the reader must get within the person's head and emotional state in order to bring the reader into the story, into its layers, deep within each page to the point where the reader no longer is aware they are in the act of reading, but experiencing.
Simple to say, but damned difficult to do because it means giving up on whining, score settling, ego, and narcissism. As Gornick explains:
"To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing. A novel or a poem provides invented characters or speaking voices that act as surrogates for the writer. Into those surrogates will be poured all that the writer cannot address directly — inappropriate longings, defensive embarrassments, anti-social desires — but must address to achieve felt reality. The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public — and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.
"Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject nor story. To achieve it, the the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking."