Style Over Substance (At Least for Today):
Revisiting The Situation in the Story in the CNF Classroom
Here’s the situation: I’m sitting at my computer, reflecting on two decades’ worth of teaching failures. This fall semester marked my twentieth year in the classroom, a temporal milestone fitting for the teacher/essayist’s most essential criterion of reflection. Eventually, reflecting becomes something we learn to do without even trying.
What I’m reflecting on now is that I recently taught Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story for maybe the twentieth time in my career as the opening salvo for my Intro to Creative Nonfiction class. And for the twentieth time, it didn’t quite work. My instinct is to say it’s all my fault; it’s not the ideas, I’m just conveying them poorly. Gornick is one of my writing heroes, near the top of my personal pantheon of the Nine Muses of Memoir. I say this to my students. But still, year after year, they read her primer on personal narrative and just don’t get it.
Before I explore why my teaching of this text is a perennial failure, let me first say why I keep trying anyway. I love it for many reasons, including the memorable opening anecdote about a series of eulogies recited at the funeral of a famous, intransigent doctor, and how only one eulogist’s words had, for Gornick, “deepened the atmosphere and penetrated my heart.” (Aside: many students hate this opening anecdote, and they’ve cited the reason is that when they die, they don’t want any eulogies examining all of their complicated humanity and occasional pain-in-the-assed-ness, but instead for eulogies to shine singularly on their virtues. Problem for me is, I teach this text too early in the semester to say: “yes, but those hopeful eulogies about you would be lying, and the beauty, as Keats’ urn said, lies in the truth, and, further, that truth-beauty combo is what this class is all about.” Perhaps my whole dilemma could be solved if I waited to teach Gornick in Week 8. I’ve always begun the semester with it, though, with the belief that Gornick held a catchall theory for the essay, and given that the story part is hard, they needed to begin working on understanding it right away.)
But the reason I most love The Situation and the Story is that when I first read it twenty years ago, it taught me something essential about writing the memoir and the essay. For those uninitiated, this opening section sets up clearly and succinctly the two essential components of a successful personal narrative: the situation, and the story. The situation is the surface-level subject of the writing, “the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot.” But the story, well, that’s what we all came here for. For Gornick, “the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” This elucidation taught me that my goal as a budding essayist was both simple and impossible: I had to not only tell my stories well, but understand why I was telling them, what it all meant (without artlessly saying, of course, “this is what it all meant.”) According to my decade-old yellow sticky note on page 13 of the book, I’ve paraphrased her definitions by telling my students that “situation is the shallow end, summary, the ‘what,’ and story is the deep end, analysis, the ‘why.’” I’ve tried lots of other metaphors, as well. Situation is fun, story is work. Situation is the fabled hare to the story’s tortoise. In one example for my CNF students this semester, I proposed situation is foreplay and the story is orgasm.
Still, they did not get it. I mean, they’re smart people. They understood the gist, they got it intellectually, but there was not now—nor has there ever been for my students—a eureka! moment like there was for me.
I have theories as to why. Let’s start with the aforementioned My Fault. Any teacher knows it’s folly to teach what you dearly love, something that’s so fundamentally influenced your style or soul that its ideas become inextricable from your own. (Once, after assigning the first fifty pages of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I harpy-shrieked ISN’T THIS AMAZING to which I heard crickets, and proceeded to read aloud highlighted sections. Couldn’t they hear it, how everything about childhood and fear and regret and wonder and the whole of humanity culminated perfectly into this enormous block of writing? C’mon, y’all! More crickets.). In other words, Gornick’s eminence is so self-explanatory to me that when I assign it, I’m kind of like, “See? Great! Let this be your guide now!” And when their faces glaze over, I transition our discussion to Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” which I much-too-ambitiously assigned for the same class period.
It could be my students’ fault. Seriously, all nearly-twenty years’ worth of them. Because most of my students’ ages range from eighteen to twenty-two years old (many now younger than my actual teaching). It’s long been known in the brain scientist/researcher world that young adult brains continue developing and changing through their mid-20s; I even learned this in college, way back in the Stone Age of 1998. What’s less known is how the app-browse-click-swipe-right-social-media addled brain develops under the influence of incessant toxic stimuli. According to an article discussing the slowly growing Gen Z-brains-research on today.com (technically a news site…?), one neurologist suggests “technology has changed the demands on brain development for kids born after the year 2000, leaving a disconnect between the brain they need and the brain they have.” And the brains they have: unfocused, averse to goal-orientation, prone to taking risks. Even more so than the pre-internet young adult brain. These brains, developmentally, have more the metaphorical chemical makeup of sugar (the situation) than protein (the story).
Am I implying my students’ phones have made them dumb, and I of the superior Gen X Brain have escaped my own phone’s nefarious effects? Certainly not. I’m just saying, what Gornick and essaying in general asks of us, to making meaning both for ourselves and others about a segment of our lives…well, this calls for more intellectual risk-taking rather than physical, and the brain research makes clear that this age cohort is much more inclined to the latter. Essaying is already so much to ask of a fully-developed adult brain, and nearly Herculean to ask of a still semi-in-utero one.
All of this leads me to suggest now, upon reflection, something that Gornick and other writers I admire might constitute as essayistic sacrilege: what if, in terms of what I’m asking of students from their own writing, just their experiences (the situation) were enough? What if I asked them to foreground situation over story? What if I asked them to temporarily just forget about the story part altogether?
But, you may be thinking, who wants to read only a description of an event? Like, what’s even the point of that? Gornick says this herself later in the opening of S&S, admitting her earlier book on Egypt had been a failure because she simply tried to replicate her experience there rather than understanding the meaning of those events to her narrating self. (Students, who I suspect don’t completely understand time ticks by more quickly than they realize, also do not appreciate Gornick’s example that shortly follows the Egypt anecdote: J. R. Ackerley took thirty years to write his masterpiece My Father and Myself, because that’s how long it took him to find the story. Though to be fair, no writer wants any book of theirs to take this long to complete, which is another reason to say buh-bye to story for now.).
Speaking of anecdotes, the only evidence I have for my proposal to create this situation-over-story classroom is anecdotal, so here it goes. Weeks after I’d taught Gornick’s text this semester, I brought her up again: I asked students whether they’d consider rejecting the foregoing notion of story. Like, just create a series of scenes in your essays from here on out, what about that? One type-A, rule-following young woman balked at that. S&S had confirmed for her the need to know and show her purpose in any personal writing situation; she needs to make meaning for herself in order to make it for her reader.
Fair enough. Hell, I’d just taught them that this was their essayistic objective. And for her next essay, yes, my type-A lovely succeeded in her storying attempt. She wrote a Gornick-approved piece about her relationship with her father, how he pushed her to become an athlete rather than artist, how she struggled to become the person he wanted and repressed her desires to please him…until she recognized she’d always be treading water to keep up with this false version of herself, and so wrote a short story for her father about this struggle. Her piece of fiction, emblematic of her passions, was what finally led him to understand. The essay was quiet, and beautiful—she was one of the few who listened to and understood Gornick. Another student, less-fully Gornicked, wrote a less-baked essay about his time working the nursing home late shift and an unlikely friendship he made there with a resident octogenarian. Every night the elder man visited my student at the front desk, carrying with him two gallon-milk jugs, and settled into one of the musty couches to tell my student about bygone days while he ruminatively sipped his milk like wine. There was little in the way of Gornick’s approach to story: I never learned why this friendship stuck with my student, what happened to the octogenarian, what all of this has to say about how we treat the elderly in America, how when we’re older and weakened, we become disposable, someone else’s midnight problem. Because I’d already taught S&S, which implies Story is God, I asked these questions of my student for future consideration.
And while only one student expressed what her experience meant to her, it’s still those damn two gallon jugs of milk I can’t get out of my head. How stranger than fiction that image was, how totally it painted the situation for me…and how that became, metaphorically at least, suggestive of story. I wanted to say, but didn’t, that every essay should contain some version of the two gallon-milk jugs to tell its reader: I was there, and because I’ve shown you some of what was there, now you’re there, too. And maybe just being there, for my student-essayists and their readers, can for now, at least, be enough.
Part of Gornick’s situation-and-story theory, I think, is that the two are inextricable from each other. So if you’re the kind of writer who can conjure a wonderfully-wrought situation, you’ll find a way for the story to reside in those details. After so many years of teaching this text, just as I’m finally getting that concept, I’m rejecting it. Because this is part of my point. As writers, my students (and I) get so caught up in making meaning—“story” becomes the pinnacle of any writing event—that sometimes the smaller elements of experience get glossed over. We forget the surprising transcendence of presenting two gallon jugs of milk.
This isn’t an essay arguing we esteem imagism over reflection as the essayist’s greatest tool. It’s just that if we understand Story as God, it’s likely that whether we’re setting out to write our first essay or our hundredth, we feel like unworthy disciples. There’s certainly not time enough to reach essay heaven in the fifteen weeks of a semester. But we can create little saints-in-training from our situations in hopes that one day, some pearly, perfectly-composed gates will open wide for us.
Here’s the real story, though: despite everything I’ve said about foregrounding “situation,” I’m compelled to make “story” out of all this, to artlessly make meaning: This Essay Concerns the Noble Struggle to Keep Heart After Decades in the Classroom. I want you to know you came here for something, even if it’s ultimately wrong. And hell, maybe this is all Gornick’s fault. After all, she fails to mention in The Situation and the Story that one of the greatest parts about being an essayist is that no one can hold you to anything: this was all just an attempt, a rhetorical shrug, a sexy maybe. So if you shook your head nope to any of the above, it’s fine, because by this time, perhaps, I’ve already gone and changed my mind.
Brooke Champagne was born and raised in New Orleans, LA and now writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the inaugural William Bradley Prize for the Essay for her piece 'Exercises,' which was published in The Normal School. Three of her essays have been chosen as Notables in the Best American Essays series, and earlier this year she won the 2022 March Faxness Essay National Championship Tournament with her essay on Aimee Mann’s cover of the song “One.” Her debut essay collection, Nola Face, will be published with the Crux Series in Literary Nonfiction at the University of Georgia Press in 2024.