The following serves as an introduction to Vivian Gornick’s new collection A Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature and Feminism in Our Time, published this week by Verso Books.
I can clearly remember the moment when I left polemical journalism behind to start the non-fiction book I had longed for since childhood. One summer morning on vacation from my crusade job Village voice, where I wrote most often for radical feminism, I sat at a makeshift desk in a hotel room on the beach and typed: “I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment on the landing on the second floor. Ms. Drucker is standing in the open door of the apartment next door smoking a cigarette. ”These were the first sentences of my memoirs Heavy attachmentsand with them I began the long training of a writer who taught herself to appreciate writing that serves history rather than writing that imposes itself on history. By which I mean, as a polemicist, I looked for stories that would illustrate my reasoning and then used the language I thought would do best; As a memoirist, I developed a range of interacting characters and let them find the language that best expressed their situation.
I was in elementary school when a teacher was holding a composition from me to class and said, “This little girl is going to be a writer.” I remember being excited but not surprised. Somehow the prediction sounded correct even then. Decades later, in college, I took the few writing classes available (there were no writing programs at the time), and the teacher (a die-hard working-class writer) declared me a writer again. I was proud this time because everyone in these classes saw this teacher’s nod of approval as an anointing. The week before graduation, I went to his desk and stood in front of him in silence.
“Yes?” he said.
“What do I do now?” I said.
“Write,” he said.
“About what?” I said.
“Boy, get out of here,” he said.
So I got a day job – office clerk, day rate teacher, editorial assistant – and wrote. I mainly wrote short pieces: my mother and a neighbor talked about an abortion over my four-year-old head, an immigrant marriage in a public garden, a rally in the town hall demanding the mayor’s dismissal. Lame, everything lame. I read through these pieces and found that the language was pedestrian, there was no ruling structure, and the narrative drive was sluggish. The problem, as I finally understood, was that there was no real point of view; and finally I saw that the point of view was missing because I actually had nothing to say. I just accumulated what another writer once called “black spots on a piece of paper”.
Then one evening in the late 1960s I was present at a public meeting where blacks and whites had a heated argument over who owned the civil rights movement. The place had exploded with emotion – loud, angry, threatening. I felt the heat build up in my chest. I wanted to be heard too. But I didn’t have the courage to brave the mess in the room, so I decided to get the scene down on paper. I can still feel the urgency I experienced that night as my fingers flew over the keyboard and the excitement as I worked to unravel a series of thoughts and emotions that – transparent! – started making sense. I realized that I really wanted to put the reader behind my eyes – see the scene as I had seen it, feel the atmosphere as I had felt it – and use my own left, literary-minded self as what I was already then as a “lighting instrument”. I had stumbled upon the style that came to be known as personal journalism and immediately recognized it as my own.
What I find interesting now is that in the morning I put the piece in an envelope, took it to the corner mailbox and sent it to them without hesitation Village voice. It never crossed my mind to send it The New Yorker or the Times or one of the many respected publications that existed at the time. no, the voiceI knew instinctively where I belonged. And indeed that voice I didn’t just publish this piece: within a year I was an employee, where I stayed for a good ten years so that counterculture journalism could slowly – very slowly – teach me my profession.
It took me a while to realize that the polemics had given me a built-in point of view. and then another, even longer, to realize that this point of view was being articulated by a person – the narrative voice I extracted from myself to tell the story at hand – who determined everything about the piece: the shape of his Structure, the tone of its language, the arc of its direction. More importantly, it became clear to me over time that this person’s sights, when turned outward – that is, toward politics and culture – served one agenda, and when trained inward, they served another: the first led on personal journalism, the second on personal narration.
But no matter: in the end it all came down to the dominant question of a point of view. Although, as I said, my am voice was the heir born polemicist, just to have One had taught me to take seriously the question of when to say something, when to turn my wheels and just put black markings on a piece of paper. After I left that voice and when I turned away from the overtly polemical script, I saw that my point of view had to arise elsewhere for me. I started writing essays, memoirs, and book reviews, paying more and more attention to a point of view held by an untouched person who would do everything in their power to find the precious story that was waiting to be rescued from the material at hand.
Take a long look at itSo it’s a collection of pieces written over a period of forty years or so that will hopefully prove the training of a writer whose critical skills were shaped by the hard-won knowledge that reading the material is stimulating, but out read it out it’s infinitely more rewarding.
Vivian Gornick is a writer and critic whose work has received and garnered two National Book Critics Circle Award nominations The Best American Essays of 2014. Gornick grew up in the Bronx among communists and socialists and became a legendary writer for the Village voice, the birth of the feminist movement in the 1970s and a respected literary critic. The memoirs are one of her works Heavy attachments– the best memory of the past fifty years New York Times– –The strange woman and the city, and Unfinished Deals: Notes Of A Chronic Readeras well as the classic text for writing The situation and the story. Read her interview with Art of Memoir.
From A Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature and Feminism in Our Time, by Vivian Gornick. Used with permission from the publisher Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Vivian Gornick.