Illustration by Rebecca Fishow
An Interview with Vivian Gornick
The following is an excerpt from an online exclusive interview with Vivian Gornick. Read the full piece on Believermag.com.
I. AN UNANSWERABLE QUESTION
THE BELIEVER: I wanted to start with a moment you often return to in your writing: your involvement in the feminist movement. How did it come about?
VIVIAN GORNICK: I guess what happened was: it must have been 1970. I wasn’t in the New Left, but I was alive and feeling its consequences. And suddenly I saw the same thing that everyone else saw. I went to work for the Village Voice. One of the first assignments [the paper] gave me was to go out and investigate these “liberationist chicks” who were gathering on Bleecker Street. So I went out to investigate these liberationist chicks, and I came back a feminist.
We all saw something slightly different. The thing I saw was that we had been raised not to take our brains seriously. That was the single sentence in my head. Here I am forty years later, and I don’t think very much differently than that. [Laughs] That became the mother lode: We had been raised not to take our brains seriously. And from that all else followed. I was never an activist, in the sense that I didn’t really join a lot of organizations. I wasn’t out in the streets. But what I did become was a writer. My activism was in writing.
BLVR: Did feminism give you a new language?
VG: Feminism gave me a way to see myself in culture, in society, in history, and that was very important. Then psychoanalysis showed me that I might be neurotic because I was a girl but, as Chekhov might have put it, I alone had to squeeze the slave out of myself, drop by drop. So between Freud and women’s rights—to use those two brilliant perspectives was to gain a vantage point from which, as we used to say, I could see myself both personally and politically. And yes, that gave me language.
BLVR: You write often about the “clarity of inner being” that radicals and artists gain through their work. Was clarity something that you gleaned from feminism?
VG: What feminism did was make clear for me how much I longed for clarity. I got married twice, each time in a fog. I had so many complicated feelings I couldn’t understand. I hated being “Mrs.” from the first second each time. I didn’t know why. All I knew was how uncomfortable it felt. I hated being one half of a couple, without understanding that it wasn’t the husband or the man I hated, it was situation, the identity. It was just: I didn’t know who I was, so how could I be one half of something else?
That’s, I guess, how I use the word clarity. What is it all about? What am I really thinking and feeling? What should I really be thinking and feeling? What’s good to really think and feel? That’s what writing is for me, as I’m sure it is for everybody who writes. Robert Frost once said that a poem is a “stay against confusion,” and I guess that says it about as well as anything. What you feel when you’re writing is the relief of thinking: if you write the sentence correctly, you’re clarifying. If you write the right sentence, nothing feels as good.
BLVR: Why is that feeling more important for some people than for others?
VG: How can I answer that? That’s an unanswerable question. You can see that it is. I once wrote a book on women in science. I realized when I was interviewing them that they were the equivalent of writers, or anyone else who tries to make art out of life. Through science they had reached the expressive.
One of my subjects had grown up in the suburbs. When she was a little girl, her mother took her constantly to a shopping mall. And you know how around every shopping mall there’s a strip of lawn, with trees, on a curb around it? She said that was there in her childhood. And she found herself, as she was going through the door, wondering why three leaves turn this way and the one turned that way. And she found herself longing to go the mall so that she could see that again and again and again. She grew up and became a geneticist, and she said nothing in her entire life thrilled her as much as the moment when she thought she understood why three leaves were turning this way and one leaf the other way. That’s the equivalent of what I feel as an imaginative writer.
I wrote a book on Emma Goldman, and she had the same feeling about anarchism. Nothing thrilled her as much as the moment when she saw radicalism as expressive. Everyone longs for expressiveness. That’s why love carries so much weight. Because so many lives are without other means of expressiveness. So love is a thrill in that sense. People feel transformed by it. They’re not, but they feel it—for a moment.
BLVR: What’s the difference between love and the thrill—
VG: Of writing? Or politics? Or research? You know what that is! It lasts a lot longer! [Laughs] It’s a lot more reliable. It won’t go on you. I don’t mean that cynically. The life of the senses, eroticism, sexual love, it just doesn’t… If two people fall in love on that basis, it just doesn’t seem to last. It’s not rich enough to last. People who fall in love with each other’s mind and spirit have a lot better shot at it—but not [people who fall in love with] the senses. However, if these senses are applied to something like writing, or moral philosophy, or science—in other words, something that has real content—you become addicted to it. Because nothing feels as good.