Memoir of a Born Polemicist

The following serves as the introduction to Vivian Gornick’s new collection Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time, which was published by Verso Books this week.

Vivian Gornick. Photo: Mitch Bach. Courtesy of Verso Books.

I can remember the exact moment when I left polemical journalism behind me to begin the kind of nonfiction storytelling I had longed, since childhood, to write. One summer morning, on vacation from my job at the crusading Village Voice, where I wrote most often on behalf of radical feminism, I sat down at a makeshift desk in a beachfront hotel room and found myself typing: “I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette.” These were the first sentences of my memoir Fierce Attachments, and with them I began the long apprenticeship of a writer who, in the act of making naked use of her own undisguised experience, has taught herself to value writing that serves the story rather than writing that imposes itself on the story. By which I mean: as a polemicist I went in search of stories that would illustrate my argument and then used the language I thought would best make it; as a memoirist I developed a set of interacting characters and let them find the language that would best express their situation.

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I was in grade school when a teacher held a composition of mine up to the class and said, “This little girl is going to be a writer.” I remember being thrilled but not surprised; somehow, the prediction sounded right even then. Decades later, in college, I took the few available writing courses (there were no writing programs then) and again, the teacher (a tough-talking, working-class novelist) pronounced me a writer. This time I was proud because everyone in those classes considered this teacher’s nod of approval an anointment. The week before graduation I went up to his desk and stood dumbly before him.

“Yes?” he said.

“What do I do now?” I said.

“Write,” he said.

“About what?” I said.

“Kid, get outta here,” he said.

So I got myself day jobs—office clerk, per diem high school teacher, editorial assistant—and I wrote. Mainly, I wrote short pieces: my mother and a neighbor talking about an abortion over my four-year-old head, an immigrant marriage in a public garden, a rally at City Hall calling for the mayor’s dismissal. Lame, all lame. I’d read these pieces over and I’d see that the language was pedestrian, there was no ruling structure, and the narrative drive was languid. The problem, I finally understood, was that there was no real point of view; and at last I saw that the point of view was missing because I actually had nothing to say. I was simply accumulating what another writer once called “black marks on a sheet of paper.”

Then one evening in the late sixties I was present at a public meeting in which Black people and white people fell out violently over who owned the civil rights movement. The place had exploded with emotion—loud, angry, threatening. I felt the heat building in my chest. I, too, wanted to be heard. But I didn’t have the courage to brave the chaos in the room so I determined to commit the scene to paper. I can still feel the urgency I experienced that night as my fingers flew across the keyboard, and the excitement as I worked to disentangle a set of thoughts and emotions that were—transparently!—begging to be made sense of. It came to me that what I wanted badly was to put the reader behind my eyes—see the scene as I had seen it, feel the atmosphere as I had felt it—and to use my own left-leaning, literary-minded self as what I thought of even then as an “instrument of illumination.” I had stumbled on the style that was becoming known as personal journalism and had immediately recognized it as my own.

The thing I now find interesting is that in the morning I put the piece in an envelope, took it to the corner mailbox, and without hesitation sent it off to the Village Voice. It never occurred to me to send it to The New Yorker or the Times or any of the many respectable publications then in existence. No, the Voice, I instinctively knew, was where I belonged. And, indeed, the Voice not only published this piece: within a year I was on its staff, where I remained for a good ten years, allowing counterculture journalism to slowly—very slowly—teach me my profession.

It took a while for me to realize that polemics had supplied me with a built-in point of view; and then another, even longer while, to realize that this point of view was articulated by a persona—the narrating voice I pulled from myself to tell the story at hand—that determined everything about the piece: the shape of its structure, the tone of its language, the arc of its direction. Even more important, in time I came to realize that when the sights of this persona were trained outward—that is, on politics and culture—it served one agenda, and when trained inward, another: the first resulted in personal journalism, the second in personal narrative.

But no matter: ultimately everything went back to the dominating question of a point of view. Even though, as I have said, mine at the Voice was the inherited one of the born polemicist, just having one had taught me to take seriously the matter of knowing when I had something to say, and when I was spinning my wheels and simply putting black marks on a piece of paper. After I’d left the Voice and drifted away from openly polemical writing, I saw that, for me, my viewpoint would have to originate elsewhere. I began to write essays, memoirs, book reviews in which I paid more and more attention to a point of view served by an unsurrogated persona who was going to do all in her power to find whatever valuable story was waiting to be rescued from the material at hand.

Taking a Long Look, then, is a collection of pieces written over a period of some forty years that demonstrate, I hope, the apprenticeship of a writer whose critical faculties have been shaped by the hard-won knowledge that reading into the material is energizing but reading out of it is infinitely more rewarding.

 

Vivian Gornick is a writer and critic whose work has received two National Book Critics Circle Award nominations and been collected in The Best American Essays 2014. Growing up in the Bronx among communists and socialists, Gornick became a legendary writer for the Village Voice, chronicling the emergence of the feminist movement in the seventies, and a respected literary critic. Her works include the memoirs Fierce Attachments­—ranked the best memoir of the past fifty years by the New York Times—The Odd Woman and the City, and Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader, as well as the classic text on writing The Situation and the Story. Read her Art of Memoir interview.

From Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time, by Vivian Gornick. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2021 by Vivian Gornick.

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