Lying Down on the Couch In Public

September 10th, 2006 by john

The Situation and the Story is an incisive meditation by Vivian Gornick about the peculiar demands and rewards of personal narrative.

“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 same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or 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 interest to the disinterested reader.”

Interestingly, Gornick has caught a bit of flak for her admission that nonfiction memoirs (her own included) don’t necessarily have to consist of facts and nothing but. Here is her elaboration on what she meant.

Which way does the SMITH audience lean on the question of truth and truthiness?