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“If Only I Could Begin Again!”

The power of memoir

Edmund Gosse. Thomas De Quincey. James Baldwin. For Vivian Gornick, what connects these writer’s disparate oeuvres is that although each pursued other genres—poetry, journalism, novels, or plays—their “significant work turns out to reside in a memoir” (or personal essays, in Baldwin’s case). In an essay in the December issue of Harper’s Magazine, Gornick nominates to this list Storm Jameson, a prolific English novelist whose autobiography, Journey from the North, is a prime example of a writer finding her voice—all the more striking in Jameson’s case because she made the discovery near the end of a long and, in Gornick’s estimation, otherwise middling career. In the immediacy of self-disclosure, something clicked for Jameson—but why? Gornick, who struggled at novel writing herself before hitting her stride in memoirs such as Fierce Attachments and The Odd Woman and the City, has “something of a vested interest in this mysterious matter of a writer’s natural métier.… I was well into my thirties,” she writes, “before I understood that I was born for the memoir.”

In this episode of the podcast, Gornick begins with a reading from the arresting first pages of Journey from the North. In the conversation that follows, she and Harper’s web editor Violet Lucca discuss Jameson’s life and legacy; the perennial excuse of “writing down” to make ends meet; the questionable value of the “autofiction” label; and Gornick’s reading (and rereading) habits during the pandemic.

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December 2020

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