solnit, stories, & autumn.

what’s your story?  it’s all in the telling.  stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice.  to love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.  (the faraway nearby, 3)

the heat wave has broken and given way to significantly cooler, dryer temperatures in new york city, and it’s got me thinking autumn.

autumn’s a great season; it means cool weather, jackets (which mean pockets), beanies, the world done up in oranges and reds, comfort food.  it means the brooklyn book festival (september 18!) and the new yorker festival (october 7-9!), and it means big fall releases (a post on that coming soon).  it also means new starts, new endeavors, new attempts to find courage — which has me turning to rebecca solnit again.

the bigness of the world is redemption.  despair compresses you into a small space, and a depression is literally a hollow in the ground.  to dig deeper into the self, to go underground, is sometimes necessary, but so is the other route of getting out of yourself, into the larger world, into the openness in which you need not clutch your story and your troubles so tightly to your chest.  being able to travel both ways matters, and sometimes the way back into the heart of the question begins by going outward and beyond.  this is the expansiveness that sometimes comes literally in a landscape or that tugs you out of yourself in a story.  (30-1)

there’s an empathy and grace to solnit’s writing that i love.  she clearly thinks deeply and seriously about the world, and she conveys this thoughtfulness and consideration in writing that i find absolutely lovely.  solnit doesn’t write like one who wastes words or uses them carelessly; she is, rather, careful about how she presents her ideas, observations, and thoughts, not in the control-freak, obsessive sort of way but in the way of someone who understands and respects the value of the printed word, of expression.

like plath’s unabridged journals, solnit’s the faraway nearby is a book i like to keep in arm’s reach at all times.  solnit makes me want to see the world in different ways, to be more expansive in my thinking, to seek connections and stories in places i might not have otherwise sought, and she feeds my desire to see the world, to get out of my bubble and comfort zone and explore different perspectives.  she makes me think about story and story-telling, why story is so essential, and that, in turn, makes me reexamine why i tell stories and why i tell the stories i do.

it’s not everyday that you find an author who challenges you to be better, to do better, to write and think and tell stories better.  if and when you do, it makes sense to keep him/her close.

to hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it.  it’s not passive but active, this listening.  it’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you.  to empathize is to reach out to meet the data that comes through the labyrinths of the senses, to embrace it and incorporate it.  to enter into, we say, as though another person’s life was also a place you could travel to.  (193)
like many others who turned into writers, i disappeared into books when i was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods.  what surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that i came out that other side and met people there.  writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity.  i sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working.  before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.  (60-1)


writing is saying to no one and to 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.  (64)


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.  (65)

nell, my favorite band in the world, released their 7th album, c, last week, and i think it’s a perfect segue from summer into autumn.  it’s an album i absolutely needed at this moment in my life, and it’s brighter in tone than nell’s sound usually is, but it’s just as comforting and reassuring as their music always is.

more on nell next time, though.  i can’t not write about nell and their new album.

after years in new york city, georgia o’keeffe moved to rural new mexico, from which she would sign her letters to the people she loved, “from the faraway nearby.”  it was a way to measure physical and psychic geography together.  emotion has its geography, affection is what is nearby, within the boundaries of the self.  you can be a thousand miles from the person next to you in bed or deeply invested in the survival of a stranger on the other side of the world.  (108)