Rebecca Solnit

2 posts

“You Have Spent Vast Amounts of Your Life as Someone Else…”

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In the final essay of her book, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit proposes, sensibly enough, that we are not ourselves. The pronoun “I” is suspect, in other words, but for a reason most of us wouldn’t consider: stories.

I’ll let Solnit speak for herself with a few relevant paragraphs:

“Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specialize in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgetting and misremembering, the portions of a life lived through others’ stories, the incoherence and inconsistency, the pantheon of dei ex machina and the companionability of ghosts. There are other ways of telling.

“As I was approaching this chapter, I woke up in the middle of the night and thought something I should have written down at the time. The empty shell of it that washed up on the shores of morning was to the effect that sometimes an extraordinary or huge question comes along and we try to marry it off to a mediocre answer. The protagonists of fairy tales and fables embody questions about who we are, what we desire, how to live, and the endings are not the real answers. During the quest and crises of a fairy tale the protagonist is nobody, possessed only of the powers of determination, resourcefulness, and alliance, an unconventional estimation of what matters. Then at the end, the story breaks with its own principles and unleashes an avalanche of conventional stuff: palaces, riches, and revenge.

“Part of the charm of [Hans Christian] Andersen’s ‘Snow Queen’ is that Gerda rescues Kai from a queen and brings him back to friendship in attics, and that’s enough. Many Native American stories don’t quite end, because the people who go into the animal world don’t come back; they become ancestors, progenitors, benefactors, forces still at work. Siddhartha is rich, thriving, loved, privileged, and protected, and walks out on all of it, as though the story were running backward. He’s born an answer and abandons that safe port to go out into a sea of questions and tasks that are never-ending.

“Essayists too face the temptation of a neat ending, that point when you bring the boat to shore and tie it to the dock and give up the wide sea. The thread is cut and becomes the ribbon with which everything is tied up, a sealed parcel, the end. It’s easy to do, and I’ve done it again and again, sometimes with a sense of betrayal of the complexity of what came before, and sometimes when I haven’t done it, an editor has asked for the gift wrap and ribbon.

“What if we only wanted openings, the immortality of the unfinished, the uncut thread, the incomplete, the open door, and the open sea? What if we liked the brothers to be swans and the nettles not yet woven into shirts, the straw better than the gold, the quest more than the holy grail? The quest is the holy grail, the ocean itself is the mysterious elixir, and if you’re lucky you realize it before you dock at the cup in the chapel.”

All of this reminds me of short story writer Peter Orner’s belief that stories should not have an ending so much as a horizon. I like open endings and unfinished business because they are more lifelike. If I were part of a feedback group asked to screen a new movie before release, for instance, I might be the lone voice saying the movie doesn’t need a neat ending where everyone lives happily ever after (Hollywood viewers love such endings, maybe, because they serve as escapist relief from viewers’ own open-ended tribulations).

But what I admire most in Solnit’s rumination is the idea of I, the Pronoun, as something that is not so much us as every story we’ve ever read, heard, or watched. We are an amalgam, a composite, a stitched tapestry of shared stories, from the fairy tales we read as children to the words that rained down from our parents’ mouths to nurture (or torture) and form us to the secrets shared with friends growing up.

The story of “I” begins but never ends, in other words. Never ends but forever changes. Think of that next time you try to be selfish. Think of that next time you set out to write, too.

Rebecca Solnit on the “Astonishing Wealth” Called “Writing”

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Montaigne would be proud. This week I have been reading more essays, specifically Rebecca Solnit’s in her 2013 collection, The Faraway Nearby.

In an essay called “Flight,” she devotes a few paragraphs to the act of writing and, as is only necessary, reading (because what’s one without the other?). I thought it was interesting. Maybe you will, too:

“Writing is saying to no one and everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure, that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

“I started out in silence, writing as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away—first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud, another voice, one I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not yet born, the unknown, and the long gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

“Sometime in the late nineteenth century, a poor rural English girl who would grow up to become a writer was told by a gypsy, ‘You will be loved by people you’ve never met.’ This is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing. You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. Like digging a hole to China and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then writing took me all the way through to connect with people again in an unexpected way. It was astonishing wealth for one who had once been so poor.”

You see the words “faraway” and “nearby” popping up here, how perfect they are for the lonely sharing that is writing and reading, yet the source of the title is alluded to in another essay called “Wound.” Georgia O’Keefe, the great artist who once lived in New York City, moved to the desert boonies (read: Taos, New Mexico), and when she did, she signed letters to friends with the closing “From the faraway nearby.”

Thank you, Georgia, for a theme! One which Solnit stitches like a thread through the collection is this wide-ranging book. Thank you, too, for a metaphor. One elastic enough to cover writing and reading and many other paradoxes afforded by daily life.

As for her pearls of wisdom re: writing, you can see Solnit’s point all too well if you write. As I am the nearest writer at the moment, let’s use me as an example.

Why am I writing this? I could just sip this wonderful first black coffee and passively read emails (easy) and news of the world (not-so-easy). Instead, I’m milling away at this keyboard, watching letters do the ant-crawl thing across this screen.

I’m not writing strictly for myself (though I gain from it, surely). I’m doing it for intrinsic reasons, because I’m compelled to as part of a “odd compact,” as Solnit puts it, an assumption that people I will never know are out there (in the “faraway nearby”) reading words I only recently strung together, enjoying them, relating to them.

Scary, I know. But think of it:┬áSome may start this piece and not finish it. Some may dig all the way to the other side (the end, or what Solnit might call “China”). Some may even return to this webpage regularly to see what I write again.

Almost mystical, isn’t it? But without each other (writers, readers), the magic would be gone. The faraway wouldn’t be nearby at all.