The Situation and The Story by Vivian Gornick Review

Situation and Story

Back in May I submitted an essay to the Modern Love column (I still have not heard anything so I am taking that as a good sign). I read ALL of the advice about how to submit and what to submit, including the editor’s wisdom on books to read. I followed him on Twitter to soak up whatever he had to say. Daniel Jones recommended Vivian Gornick highly as a guide to writing resonant personal essays, ones like he chooses to publish. Here is a link to the Google Doc Holy Grail. I ordered the book immediately and skimmed before sending my submission.

Now a couple months later, I have had the chance to spend some time with Ms. Gornick, and I have to agree with Mr. Jones- she is wise. The slim volume offers some wonderful examples of essays and memoirs the author admires, as well as some sage advice about how those works became great. I really appreciated how she defined the task of identifying the situation you are writing about and the story you are conveying. The situation is, “…the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In thinking about my own writing with this lens, it is much easier to see what is important to the emotional experience, what is the why of telling the story.

This is a worthy read for anybody embarking on the often painful task of writing personal essays or memoir. At the end there is a discussion guide that would be useful if you were using the book to teach a class. Below are some of my favorite quotes from Gornick.

“Nonfiction builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension.” (35)

“The narrator in a memoir must always be reliable, always working hard to get to the bottom of the experiences in hand…” (117)

“For drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.” (35)

 

Writing Challenge Roundup

white paper with note

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I didn’t realize how effective a writing challenge can be for keeping you accountable to writing every day until I embarked on #1000wordsofsummer. I wrote…a lot. Reading the newsletters Jami Attenberg sent out inspired me daily to sit down and do the work of writing. The challenge started a habit of writing every day and I was hungry for more accountability when it finished.

As some others did, I tried just posting my daily word counts and a little about what I wrote, but the lack of a community engaged in the same challenge as me made it less fruitful. I looked for another writing challenge that would prod me to keep up my routine and found Camp Nanowrimo running for the month of July. I tried Nanowrimo in November a few years ago, but was not so successful. The goal is 50,000 words in a month. I was not quite up to the challenge. The July Nano Camp is a little looser. You set your goal, and it can be a daily word count or overall word count. They do another one in April set up the same way. I like the community aspect. I joined a group of fellow memoirists and we post our word counts, give each other moral support, and talk about writing.

Nano is not the only challenge out there. Here are a few others I checked out:

Shut Up and Write– Every month they host a prompt-based writing challenge. You have the option of working on your own, or posting your work in their community forums. They also host writing sprints on Twitter every day at designated times. They have lots of writing resources on their site, and an optional newsletter.

Scribendi– So for those who might be intimidated by the scope of a Nano challenge, Scribendi offers a month-long writing challenge that follows a set of writing prompts/exercise. You write however much you want without the guilt of not meeting the Nano goal. I particularly liked Day 11: You are now a dragon. Describe your hoard. I like the prompts from this site. It definitely helps with developing character and world-building.

10 Minute Novelists– I LOVE THIS GROUP! I stumbled across this one as I was looking for online writing communities. It is Facebook-based and you do have to request and invite. They have a website, and it has a blog which has some great tips, but the FB group is where it is at. I actually just registered for a free literary seminar that another member posted this morning. They also have the 365 day challenge which is a very organized group of writers committed to writing every day. You do have to pay to become a member of this challenge group, but their testimonials are fantastic. I was drawn to this group because sometimes I can’t devote two hours of uninterrupted time to write. Sometimes, writing happens in snippets around life. That is the core of their philosophy- write when you can every day.

Writer’s Workout– This site has a number of challenges. There is a bi-annual short story challenge, a monthly micro-challenge, and a prompt-based series. Their site promotes the idea that to get better at what you do, you must practice. They provide lots of avenues of writing practice.

Yeah Write– This site offers three types of challenges. There is a weekly free challenge grid that is open to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each grid has specific submission guidelines and are judged by popular vote. There is also a monthly microprose challenge: 48 in 48. Yes, you read that correctly, 48 words only. There is a prompt  and submission guidelines posted on the first Saturday of each month. This one is a lot of fun, especially if you are trying to train yourself to write small. They also have a quarterly super challenge that requires an entry fee and is eligible for cash prizes.

NaPoWriMo– This was a new one for me. I am familiar with Nano, but did not realize there was one devoted to poetry held during National Poetry Month. It is not affiliated with the official Nano site. This challenge asks you to write a poem a day for 30 days. You can either do this just for your own personal viewing, or you can submit your site to NaPoWriMo and they will list you with their participating poet sites roundup.

NaNoWriMo– From their site…

National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists.

I am certain there are more out there, but as I started poking around, these were the challenges I decided to give a try. Write on!

Father’s Day During a Pandemic

anonymous crop father helping kid to ride bicycle

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My dad passed away before his 40th birthday. Father’s day is one of those holidays that is always bittersweet for me. I miss him, and wish he could see the amazing grandchildren he has. I wish he knew Dylan did not turn out to be a guitar picker, but he loves music. He is happy playing tennis, and working in a career he loves. He is kind, and generous…just like my dad. I wish he knew Olivia. She is smart, and ambitious. As a freshman in college, she is a NIH INBRE Scholar doing research in a lab alongside grad students and phds. She is passionate about conservation, just like him.

Father's Day

Family Dive Trip in Grenada

Now there is another dad in my life, my husband. He is boisterous, intelligent, kind, and an engineer just like my dad. This year father’s day is different. Our kids are in another state, and everybody is being careful not to contract or spread Covid-19. We have a house in Virginia waiting for renovations so we can sell it. The pandemic happened, and it has been sitting, waiting for us to come show it some love and find its new owners. My husband decided to make the drive this weekend and see if he could go through the meager possessions left there, and enlist some contractors who can start the process of giving it a light makeover.

Our kids will both be in town this weekend, but it is a hard choice about seeing them. They have been careful of exposure, but they are also of the generation without fear of getting Covid-19. They have seen friends, significant others, been out paddleboarding, grocery shopping- wearing masks, but still around others who do not.  But, it is Father’s Day, and we are a close family. I am sure he will take the risk, but use caution.

I don’t think any of us realized how difficult this would be when we undertook sheltering in place. There is an allure to ignoring the numbers, thinking even if we get it, we will survive, the risk is acceptable to see our family, and enjoy some of the comforts foregone for so many weeks. But, that also would mean ignoring reality, ignoring the spikes in infection and hospitalizations across states that have blindly reopened. It would also mean putting those we love at risk. So, my husband won’t go see his mother while in town. He won’t see our close friends while in town. He will hunker down and stay isolated in our house, and see our kids from six feet away as they have a socially-distanced, takeout Father’s Day.

I will be at home in Florida thinking healthy thoughts for him and the kids.

I want to do something special for him when he gets back, and show him how much I admire and appreciate the parent he is to our kids.

He has fond memories of strawberry cake on his birthday. The strawberries are beautiful right now. I am in the midst of testing recipes. It is a good time for some Strawberry Lemonade cupcakes. Recipe and pics coming next week!

 

#1000WordsofSummer Reflections

coffee notebook pen writing

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The challenge officially ends today, and I have mixed feelings. It has been a boon to have the accountability of pushing out at least 1000 words every day for fourteen days. I did that. I wrote close to 20,000 words just these last two weeks. That is pretty frickin’ awesome!

I also established a routine- I write every day. Sometimes it feels like a chore. Sometimes I can’t wait to get going, but every day I do it. This challenge forced me to establish a routine, and I am going to stick to it. If you don’t write, you aren’t a writer. Pretty simple.

I am sad I will not have a community of people engaged in the same task as me to check in with daily. We shared book recs, writing advice, pictures of our pets, and personal struggles. A strong writing community makes the solitary task of writing easier. Once this pandemic ebbs, I will find a writing group. I know I need that conduit for feedback and support.

I downloaded all of Jami Attenberg’s inspirational newsletters in case I find my dedication to #stayinit waning. It will not be the same, and I am eternally thankful to have been a part of her group, but it is a touchstone now for taking a serious step towards finishing my book.

Recipe Testing: The Good, The Bad & The Tasty

set of tasty fresh vegetables and parsley with empty clipboard

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I challenged myself to write along with the community participating in #1000wordsofsummer to help kickstart a working draft of my food memoir and establish a regular writing routine. It is day eight and I have hit my goal every day.

The hard part of this has been facing the realization that most of the first draft of my book was trash. Jenny Bent was kind to me when she sent my rejection letter a decade ago…too kind. Most of my writing time these past eight days has been salvaging a sentence or two to bounce off and completely rewriting the rest. I had 90 pages plus another 42 of recipes to start. I am now at 22,739 words which is roughly 88 pages. I think I probably saved about 12 pages of original content and the rest is new. I feel good about where the narrative is going. It is much more raw and honest, but that is what it needed to be from the start. It is hard writing some of these moments though- it is a lot of me coming to terms with things I have pushed down for years.

Now that I have a good chunk of story, I need to get to work on recipes. I am terrible at writing down what I do in the kitchen. I sort of just throw things in, taste, adjust, serve. I need to make the recipes something a novice could follow successfully. My husband has gladly volunteered to be the tester 🙂 He will taste the product I make, give me feedback. then make it following my directions and compare the end products. He is a usability engineer so I am a lucky girl.

The list is lengthy. Follow along as we navigate recipe testing while #shelteringinplace with no escape from each other. First up: pickled vegetables and pimento cheese spread.

 

Writers Near and Far: Shared Prompts and Tic-Tac-Toe Boxes — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

By Megan Vered and Jennifer Lang Part One: Creating Community by Megan Vered I open the link to our scheduled Monday evening meeting and, one by one, mini faces appear in virtual boxes. How happy I am to see the women from my weekly writer’s group! We’ve been meeting in my home for the past […]

via Writers Near and Far: Shared Prompts and Tic-Tac-Toe Boxes — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

A writing group is so essential for a writer. I have been a part of a few over the years, and they always make me a better, more aware writer. I was introduced to the concept at the Blue Ridge Writing Project at Virginia Tech in 2010, and since Sheltering-in-Place started, I have not thirsted for one more. I love that writers like Megan Vered and Jennifer Lang are making the magic of writer’s groups work virtually across continents, and time zones. We need these type of communities as we try to document and give voice to what is going on in society. We also need the support and fellowship as writing becomes an even more solitary endeavor.

Stay Safe, Find Your People, and Write On!

Cooking in Quarantine: Easy Chocolate Orange Cake

I never use pre-made mixes…for anything…but in times like these, a girl has got to relent. My daughter loves my Tigerlily Cake- a mashup of orange and chocolate cakes topped with rich chocolate ganache. It is also one of my go-to potluck desserts because well, it’s super yummy!

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Originally I posted about this delicious cake when I made it for my department meeting before I retired. Now that Liv is home from college and sheltering in place with us, an opportunity to dust this one off presented itself. This time my supply pantry was getting a little sparse, and it seems everyone out there is looking for easy, quick desserts. I caved and bought a yellow cake mix and a dark chocolate cake mix.

I used Duncan Hines Yellow Cake Mix with a couple of hacks.

  • Swap out the liquid for fresh squeezed orange juice- I took me two oranges, and I used the zest in the batter for extra orangeiness.
  • Add one extra egg
  • Switch out melted butter for oil

Mix it up and pour into a nonstick bundt pan you have sprayed or buttered.

Now time for the chocolate cake. I used the Betty Crocker Super Moist Triple Chocolate Fudge mix.

Again, I modded it… a little. Also, I did not even rinse the standmixer bowl so the chocolate cake gets a boost of orange as well.

  • Add one extra egg yolk
  • Switch out melted butter for oil
  • Switch out milk for water

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The super easy, no special equipment method for chocolate ganache. All you need is a good-sized glass measuring cup 🙂 and a few ingredients.

Ingredients:

Chocolate Ganache

  • 12 oz. good chocolate (I like Ghirardelli Dark chips)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (adjust as needed for smooth consistency)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Instructions:

  • Put everything in the measuring cup and microwave. You just want the cream to warm and the chocolate to soften.
  • Stir and pour glaze over finished cake.

Here is the original post with from scratch recipes for when you have more time and supplies.

After a short trip to the store for ingredient acquisition, we donned our aprons and got to work. Tigerlily cake is a blend of two different cake flavors- orange and chocolate. Some people have aversions to this combo, but we love it. We mix up the orange cake first- it is really a fabby yellow cake with fresh squeezed orange juice substituted for the liquid and heaping teaspoons of orange zest. I do this one first because when you assemble, it goes in the pan first and there is the added bonus you can use the same mixing bowl and it will just lend the chocolate a complimentary profile. I adapted the wonderful yellow cake recipe I got from Smitten Kitchen for the orange cake. Liv did all the measuring and mixing while I prepped the pans with butter and preheated the oven. I love the way a kitchen smells when you zest an orange- fresh and reminiscent of walking the groves in Florida.

Ingredients:

Orange Cake (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter one Bundt pan.
  • 2 cups plus 1 tablespoons cake flour (not self-rising)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3/4  teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 stick  unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup sugar
  • Juice of one large orange, fresh squeezed
  • 2 teaspoons orange zest (zest over batter bowl to capture oils from peel)
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup buttermilk (I like Homestead Creamery)

Instructions:

  • Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl.
  • In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, then beat in vanilla. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  • At low speed, beat in buttermilk, orange juice and zest until just combined (mixture will look curdled). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
  • Once you have that mixed up, pour into your prepared Bundt pan.

The orange cake is lighter and will rise to the top while baking. This will give the cake its flowery appearance with the two cakes colors merging.

Ingredients:

Chocolate Cake

  • 1  cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3/4  teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4  teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 1 stick  unsalted butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon ( I like roasted Saigon)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup sour cream

Instructions:

  • Sift together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cayenne and salt in a separate medium bowl.
  • Using the paddle attachment for your mixer, beat butter and sugar in a large bowl at medium speed until  fluffy. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Add the vanilla.
  • At low speed, beat in half the flour mixture. Alternate beating in the sour cream with the flour mixture until all is incorporated.
  • Layer into the Bundt pan by pouring around middle of orange batter. I like to use a chopstick to swirl the batter. The chocolate batter will immediately start to move to the bottom revealing the orange batter.
  • Bake for approximately 40 minutes, depending on your oven. Mine is old and finnicky so I check when we hit the 35 minute mark. You want it to rise so don’t be afraid. It is done when a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean.
  • Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then invert onto your cake carrier to await ganache. After the cake is inverted, I like to squeeze another orange around the top of the cake. This adds that extra level of moistness and infuses more of the orange flavor throughout.

Now it’s time for the ganache. Ganache can be super easy as long as you pay attention to it. You don’t want to breakdown the chocolate so much that it becomes grainy. You want a smooth topping to spread on you luscious cake.

Ingredients:

Chocolate Ganache

  • 12 oz. good chocolate (I like Ghirardelli Dark chips)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream (adjust as needed for smooth consistency)
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Instructions:

  • Bring water to a boil in a double boiler.
  • Add chocolate to top of double boiler. Stir to ensure chocolate melts but does not seize.
  • Once the chocolate was pretty melty, add the heavy cream and cinnamon. Once it melds, remove from heat and allow to cool a couple minutes before ladling it on the cake.

Needless to say, the cake was enjoyed by all and Liv has one more recipe in her arsenal!

Note to self- get better at taking food photos!

Stay Safe and Cook On!

Other Posts in the Quarantine Series:

 

Writing Prompts for When You Can’t Write Due to a Global Crisis — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog

Every writer out there…this list is gold 🙂 I’m thinking of a braided essay on toilet paper and bras…

By Julie Vick Can’t seem to get much writing done during the pandemic? Here are some writing prompts that probably won’t help: Write a letter to your younger self. Find a way to casually suggest that you start learning how to cut your own hair. Plan a trip to a different room in your house. […]

via Writing Prompts for When You Can’t Write Due to a Global Crisis — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog