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Keep Up with the Essay One Paragraph at a Time

A New Feature (Almost) Every Friday

May 26, 2023

Reprinted from July 1, 2014




from The Situation and the Story

by Vivian Gornick


“The solution is an act of humility achieved in a state of tranquility.




The Humble Essayist takes off the month of June to recharge and rethink. As we head into our tenth year, I decided to go back into the archives to find a feature that takes the long view of the work we do at THE. I chose Vivian Gornick, whom we featured in the first month of our existence. She reminds us that the writer of personal prose must, in all humility, let go of the situation of her life to hear its story which is always about something bigger than the writer—one of the defining ideas behind this website.


Vivian Gornick is the author of the memoir Fierce Attachments and many collections of essays including Approaching Eye-Level, The End of the Novel of Love, The Men in My life and more recently The Odd Woman and the City.  In 2023, she received the Hadada award, whose previous recipients include Joan Didion, Philip Roth, and Jamaica Kincaid. The Paragraph of the Week is from The Situation and the Story, her 2001 guide to the art of personal narrative.  In the book she offers a way for writers to move from being self-absorbed scribblers to “truth speakers.”  It is the way of the humble essayist.


We will feature Gornick during the month of June, but on July 7 we will be back to celebrate our ninth birthday with our annual tribute to Henry David Thoreau.

The Paragraph of the Month


I began to see that in the course of daily life when, by my own lights, I act badly—confrontational, challenging, dismissive—I am out there on that raft before I have found the narrator who can bring under control the rushing onslaught of my own internal flux.  When I am doing better, I am able to see that the flux is a situation. I stop churning around inside my own defensiveness; adopt a tone, a syntax, a perspective not wholly mine that allows me to focus on…what?  the husband? the guides?  the illegals?  No matter. Any one of them will do.  I become interested then in my own existence only as a means of penetrating the situation in hand. I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.


—Vivian Gornick



We have all acted “badly” in this way, right?  Faced with some situation we have become “confrontational, challenging, dismissive,” and, as Gornick points out later, “defensive.” Gornick shows the nonfiction writer the way out of this contemptible frame of mind to the more gracious state of the “truth speaker,” by using the extended metaphor of a raft. When we are petty, we are on a raft “riding the onslaught” of our on “internal flux.” The word flux is right, suggesting waywardness and helplessness, but it is the word internal that is curious. The flux—the “churning”—is not in the situation but in us, a seething ferment that must be tamped down if the writer is to avoid drowning in the self.  The solution is an act of humility achieved in a state of tranquility. “I become interested in my own existence,” she writes, “only as a means of penetrating the situation at hand.” With that sentence, the humble essayist is born! Writers create a persona out of a chastened self by striking the right tone, crafting sentences, and finding a fresh angle on the situation. They right the raft by finding the story, the underlying meaning in “internal flux.” Whether they use first person singular or plural, they find a serene ‘we’ inside the tumultuous ‘I’, and when they do, Gornick explains using a different metaphor elsewhere in her book, they come to “a clearing where the sense of things is larger than it was before.”



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Zone 3 Interview on The Beloved Republic


Thanks to Amy Wright and the folks at Zone 3 for granting me an interview about my new book. Amy reads with discernment, asks great and surprising questions, and listens carefully to the answers. Check out the question she opens with in the sidebar--it goes right to the heart of the matter! See the full interview here.

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The Beloved Republic by Steven Harvey

Available at Bookstores and Online

See more at the author's website and check out our video trailers here.

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Trailer Two

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Announcement: The Beloved Republic


I am pleased to announce that my fourth collection of personal essays  won the Wandering Aengus Press. Thanks to the Press for this honor.

What is the Beloved Republic? E. M. Forster, who coined the phrase, called it “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky” who “have the power to endure” and “can take a joke.” Pitted against authoritarianism, the Beloved Republic is the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. Taking Forster’s phrase for its title, my book can be read as dispatches from that besieged land.

Available online and at bookstores. Learn  more at the author's website 

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Folly Beach 

Folly Beach is a book-length personal essay about easing fears of mortality and loss through creativity. It never loses sight of the inevitable losses that life brings, but doesn't let loss have the last word.  In the face of the grim, Folly Beach holds up the human capacity to create as our sufficient joy.


In a world of loss, creativity is the best revenge.

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Follow on Goodreads

and write a review.

You can learn more about the recent work of Steven Harvey at his author's page here.

THE Mission

We at The Humble Essayist are in love with the paragraph, that lowliest of literary techniques.  A sentence stands out as a noble thing: a complete thought.  But what is a paragraph?  And what, in particular, is a good one?  You know it when you read it--that is our article of faith.  So on Friday of each week, beginning on Independence Day 2014, the very day 169 years earlier that Henry Thoreau moved to Walden Pond, we will select a single paragraph from an essay or a reflective memoir and print it here along with a paragraph of commentary.   We will choose paragraphs that are surprising, beautifully written, and, above all, thematic--illuminating the author's comment on life.  Each paragraph of the week is, in short, a concise review of the writer's work.  We hope that this page will introduce you to many exciting authors and their ideas.


The Humble Essayist thanks Clipartpal for the public domain artwork of "The Old Man Reading" that is the logo for the site.

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