Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me #1: Vivian Gornick

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As a writer of first-person nonfiction, I have lately been paralyzed with fear, mostly about hurting other people through the stories I tell. Every time I publish a personal essay, someone close to me freaks out – sometimes because I’ve revealed something about myself they’re not comfortable with, but more often because I’ve revealed too much about them, and in a way they find unflattering.

In an effort to embolden myself to move past this crippling fear and go on writing – or give up altogether – I’ve begun interviewing memoirists I admire. I ask them their philosophy about writing about others; how they have handled writing about their parents, siblings, husbands, wives, partners, exes, and everyone in between; and what kind of consequences they’ve suffered as a result.

First up was Vivian Gornick, veteran journalist, feminist, critic, teacher, and author of many books, including The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, essentially a bible for writers of memoir and essays.

In Fierce Attachments, her classic 1987 memoir, she tells the story of her difficult, symbiotic relationship with her widowed mother – how it both defined and confined her. The narrative weaves back and forth between evocative vignettes from Gornick’s painful childhood in the Bronx, and scenes from her adult life, many of them centered around conversations she has with her mother as they walk together through Manhattan.

Gornick holds nothing back in portraying her mother – feisty until the day she died at 94 – as cloying, manipulative, and vindictive. But she does so lovingly, alternately offering compassionate glimpses of her mother’s vulnerability and deep attachment to her daughter. Any reader who has had a complicated relationship with a parent – and who hasn’t? – both perfectly understands and marvels at how an educated, “liberated” intellectual feminist thinker and Village Voice reporter like Gornick can be instantly undone by one phone call from the woman who gave her life.

I met with Gornick, who is at work on her second memoir, at her apartment in Greenwich Village.

The Rumpus: I first read Fierce Attachments when I was thirty-five and I just read it again, at forty-four. It really knocked me out this time, maybe because I see my parents getting older. How old were you when you wrote it?

Vivian Gornick: In my late forties. I was about forty-six or forty-seven, something like that.

Rumpus: It really resonated. I am especially in awe of the way you handled writing about your mother and also your husband and your lover. I found that although you didn’t pull any punches, you treated them very tenderly.

Gornick: That is good. My mother did not quite see it that way. But, I mean — well, she did, periodically and ultimately. Lots of people – old, Jewish people who have no literary sense whatever – would often say, “How can you write such things about your mother?!” And my mother herself would say that on occasion. But, yeah I am glad to hear it feels now that I was writing tenderly.

Rumpus: Did you plan Fierce Attachments as a memoir?

Gornick: I was definitely very conscious about writing a memoir. The stories of my mother and Nettie and myself, those were vivid stories I told since I was a kid. And people were always saying, “Oh write a novel, write a novel.” It took me many years to realize that I wasn’t a fiction writer, and that came about through my work at the Village Voice. See, I never thought of myself as writing about myself, but I was of that generation that was very influenced by the New Journalism, and I knew early that – and this dovetailed with feminism, with my becoming a radical feminist — to insert myself, to use myself to tell a story that was actually cultural and political and intense, was my style. I learned the importance of using myself — not writing about myself — in those years. People who knew what they were doing would use themselves to illuminate a subject beyond themselves. The bad ones were falling into it and ending up writing about themselves and they were the worst writers of personal journalism. I never lost sight of the story that was outside myself.

Then years passed and I got tired of that work and I wanted to write from the inside, out of my own experience. I wanted to make literature, and not any longer be a stranger in other peoples lives, but become intimate with my own. So, one day, I was walking in the street with an old friend, and somehow or other we started talking about our childhood, and I came up again with Nettie and momma and me. She suddenly said to me, “That is a memoir.” And you know, the word, it never came into my head. But this was the seventies, before this craze began. And a light bulb went on in my head and I realized that that is what I had to do.

Rumpus: Did you plan it as the memoir that it turned out to be? Or did you just write and see where it went?

Gornick: What happened was, all my life, I thought Nettie and momma made me a woman. Between the two of them, my mother lost her husband and became Anna Karenina – she went down on the sofa and suffered – and the other one, Nettie, became the whore of Babylon. From them I learned that a man was the most important thing in life and if you lost one you were a moron. If you did not get one, you were stupid and lost and you were inept. I came of course to resent that as I got older and I was an incipient feminist. I had ambitions for myself and I came to hate them both for this. And this was the story I thought I wanted to write.

So I wrote about forty pages and I suddenly got horribly stuck and I knew I did not have a structure that would help me tell the story that I wanted to tell, and I did not even really know what the story was at this point. But I knew I had unfinished business with my mother and that telling this all in the past, as if I was telling a straight narrative since I was eight years old, would not work. For six months, I sat at my desk in misery, and then one day my mother called and told me one of these walking stories that I later repeated in the book. This girl and she were at the stop light and the little girl started to cross the street on the red. My mother pulled her back and said, “Darling, you only cross on the green,” and kid said, “Lady, you got the whole thing upside-down.” And I said to my mother, “That kid is not going to last until eight.” And then, for fun, just to relieve myself of the writing block, I sat down and wrote this vignette out. And suddenly I realized that I had gold, that I could put my mother and myself in the present, walking the streets of New York, and alternate with the past, and that would help me create two sets of women who were slowly going to account for themselves, to each other. And in the walks, I was going to give my mother everything. In the walks, she’d be smart, funny, wise, warm, tart, all the things that she could be, and in the past, she would be neurotic and self-pitying.

Rumpus: So she had an arc.

Gornick: She had an arc and that helped me make an arc. When I went back and re-wrote everything this way, slowly I began to see the story was not in how momma and Nettie made me a woman, but the story was that I had become my mother and therefore I could not leave my mother. That was the thing I really came to understand – what we all come to understand ultimately. It is all based on fear and misery and the inability to separate. And that I had mimicked so much of her. So much of her was inside me that I could not leave. Once I understood that, I knew that I was writing to dramatize that insight. After that it didn’t matter what the hell I wrote. There was nothing I was afraid of, because I knew I was not writing to trash her. I was not writing to aggrandize myself. I was writing to serve that insight.

Rumpus: Did your mother know you were writing this memoir? How did she feel about it?

Vivian Gornick

Gornick: She knew what I was doing, and sometimes she would rage at me, “Why are you writing this?! So the whole world will know you hate me?” And I would go home and quail, and I would not be able to write for three days. And then I would forget about her, and trusted that she would have the wit ultimately to see that these were hard truths I was speaking, and that I was not setting out to savage her. And in her way, she did. I mean, my mother was like a child. She was volatile until the day she died, so I never showed her a word of this to her until it was printed. Then she gets it. She reads thirty pages and she calls me up and she says, “Already I see you said something not true.” So I said, “What?” And it was something ridiculous. Then another thirty pages and another and I said, “Ma, what is it?” And she says, “It hurts.” And I said, “Mom, it is a great for you that you can say that.” Anyway, she finished it and she came here and she sat down in this chair and she said, “Well, you had a lot of courage and some nerve to write this book. You told the truth. I see how much I have affected your life.” But then two weeks later she called me in a rage, saying, “You have held me up to ridicule! Now the whole world knows I was no good.” On and on we went like that. At the end, after a year, she got into the celebrity of the book, and she was walking around New York signing it.

Rumpus: That’s awesome. That’s an outcome to wish for.

Gornick: I know a novelist whose work is very autobiographical. She said once, “I write as though everyone is dead,” and essentially, if you are going to do this work, that is what you have to do. You have to believe in the story that you are telling more than anything else.

Rumpus: I aspire to what you are saying – I do not feel like my stories are just about me. I feel like they are larger stories about what is happening culturally, and also just about being a human being. Like, “This is what it is to be a human being in this world at this time.” I do feel that there is a greater good that will ultimately be served by what I have to say.

Gornick: That should liberate you.

Rumpus: It does until, you know, like, my stepmother calls and tells me that if my father has a heart attack, it’s going to be my fault because of what I wrote – in the same way that you would get the phone call and would not be able to write for three days. Not all of my stories are about my parents, but many at least refer to them. There is just no way to cleanly tell a story of anything that happened in my life without the context of other people.

Gornick: From the minute I realized I was a writer, I realized they just had less reality than my story. There’s no other way to put it. You either do it or you do not do it. If you are traumatized by the family, the parents, all of this, then you do not write.

Rumpus: Right.

Gornick: There is no prescription. There is no magic potion for it. There is only the greater need. Nobody can put that into you. That is the transforming moment, the need to tell your the story.

Rumpus: I have that need. Actually, I do not feel like it is a choice. I feel like I cannot help but write – except when I’m so scared that I can’t. There is this compulsion to get it all down.

You never let the feelings of others influence your writing?

Gornick: I subjected myself to one restriction in Fierce Attachments, and I regretted it. My brother – I cannot even remember how or why I showed him any of this. I guess it was my niece who said he was in a dither and he was agitated. He is six-and-a-half years older than me. We have a bad relationship, but we are a pair who keep on trying. So, I always felt somewhat constrained by him. My brother said to me, “No matter what, I do not want you ever to write a word about me,” and that scared me. So, I make him very shadowy. After that though, I never ever showed anybody anything, none of them, ever. I do not show anybody anything. My ex-husbands I have written about, and I do not give a shit –

Rumpus: Did you change names?

Gornick: Yes, completely. I never can write with their real names. It just constrains me terribly.

Rumpus: Did you ever hear from either of the husbands?

Gornick: Yeah, the second one. He was like, “What? When did I do that?” I said well, you did not exactly do that.

Rumpus: What about — what about Joe Durbin, the married man with whom you had an affair? How did he handle it?

Gornick: Oh, Joe Durbin. Well, the one thing that I was afraid of was that his wife would recognize him.

Rumpus: That was my question after this one.

Gornick: Yeah, she did not. It was a complicated affair. He certainly didn’t give a damn. Even though I had some hard things about him too in it, you know, what a bully he was. Oh, but he did not care.

Rumpus: You revealed he was an adulterer.

Gornick: Yeah, and that he was unfaithful to me. But, I mean, he knew himself. He did not care. He was delighted by the book. He thought it was a great book. The wife, though.

Rumpus: You worried about her?

Gornick: I worried, but not enough not to write. I showed it to him before it was published out of this worry, and he was a little bit worried, but not enough to censor me.

I had some trouble with other people, though. My mother tells a story early on about Mrs. Kornfeld, I think that was her name, and she is the woman who lies down in the road, who is crazy with sexual jealousy because all these women are able to sleep with their husbands and she cannot because her kids are in the room, and she goes to really a malicious extent to scare the women in the country. I do not know why I used her real name. I figured they are all dead. A year later, I get a call and a man says, “Are you Vivian Gornick?” I said, “Yes,” and he says “I believe that you wrote about my mother.” My heart is pounding, and he says “I am Mrs. Kornfeld’s son.” I nearly dropped the down the telephone.

Rumpus: Was he angry?

Gornick: He was not angry. Worse, he was sort of hurt. And then I realized I had been reckless.

Worse, many years ago the first book I wrote was a book about Egypt. [ed: In Search of Ali Mahmoud: An American Woman in Egypt, Dutton, 1973]. I had an Egyptian lover and I went to Egypt on the strength of that affair and I met all these people and I came home and I wrote this book on Egypt with all these people in it and that had terrible consequences. I just did not disguise them enough, and one of the uncles called this Egyptian man who was still in America and said, “You have sent a Jewish fox to eat of our vitals.” It was really scary. I got calls from the Nazi party in America that said, “We see you are one of us.” I got calls at midnight from people who said, “You belong in Auschwitz.” The Jews especially were in a fucking rage. And I was frightened. It was really frightening. That was like being one of these reporters who was gonna be offed.

Rumpus: As you were writing, there was never a sense that you were betraying anybody in writing about them?

Gornick: As a writer you are always making use of the people you have experienced. I mean what else have you got? Joan Didion once said a writer sells everybody out, which is true. The best thing though that you can say for yourself is that you have got your eye on a larger story. You are not writing in order either to even scores or write some nasty piece of delicious sensation or whatever.

Rumpus: It’s little consolation for them. “Congratulations. You are part of a grander truth.”

Gornick: It is a big consolation for them yeah, right. No one ever sees themselves the way the writer sees them. A friend of mine wrote a memoir about her mother where she said many, many painful things and her mother called her up in a rage and she said, “Ma, it is not about us, it is art.” And her mother said, “What kind of dummy do you think you’re talking to?”

Rumpus: The book ends with a discussion where you mother says, “Why don’t you go already? Why don’t you walk away from my life? I’m not stopping you.” And you say, “I know you’re not, ma.” It was such a difficult relationship. Did you ever think about cutting her out?

Gornick: Of my life?

Rumpus: Yeah. I mean, it’s such a complicated love between a child and a parent. You want to protect them, but at the same time, you want to be free of them.

Gornick: Oh no. I could not do that. Are you kidding? It is not even that I am such Jewish daughter. As you get older, you know that this is a zero-sum game. You lose fifty different ways. You are harnessed with this thing. The only way to live with yourself is just to be as decent as you can be within it. But I was a dutiful daughter. I could not live with myself if I cut her out. She dragged at my heart too. There was no way out of it. But writing the book did not – when I wrote that book I had achieved as much distance as I needed to write the book, but I had certainly not achieved enough distance to not still go on being lacerated by my mother.


Sari Botton is a writer living in upstate New York. She is the editor of Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving & Leaving NY. Her articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and more retrograde women’s magazines than she’d care to recall or admit to. She tweets at @saribotton. More from this author →