The personal essay is a popular genre of nonfiction these days, taking up prominent column inches in magazines and often assigned to high school and college students as a way to break them into writing or as a vehicle for admissions officers to separate those they want from those they don’t. The thing is, the personal essay is difficult to write, and a high wire act that offers a number of possible pitfalls for the author. The best writers travel the razor sharp edge between blatant narcissism and deeply felt resonance, managing to take their life stories and hold them up like mirrors in which we, the readers, see ourselves. I am thinking now of the greats like Michel De Montaigne, Henry David Thoreau, E.B. White, Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Richard Rodriguez. A new name to add to the list is Rebecca Solnit.
Solnit is the author of twelve books, all of which are great, but two loosely connected collections make for a good entry point into her oeuvre. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2005) and more recently, The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013) display her mastery of the craft of the personal essay. The books are about her, yet they are also about so much more—geography, history, literature, illness, and the journeys we travel.
In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Solnit advocates getting lost in the blueness of the world. She believes that only when we lose the world can we find ourselves, a paradox more than worthy of further exploration. This blue light of the world of which she speaks is “the light that got lost.” She goes on to say that “Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water.” She returns to this theme of exploration of the blueness in subsequent interludes of chapters all titled, “The Blue of Distance.”
Getting lost is not being lost at all, and Solnit cites no less an authority than Socrates. “They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed.” In that passage, Socrates, the man of rhetoric and logic becomes a mystic, or is he a Buddhist? A metaphysicist? She quotes a bit more of the great dialogist: “The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all…all enquiry and all learning is but recollection.” Solnit explains that “Socrates says you can know the unknown because you remember it. You already know what seems unknown; you have been here before, but only when you were someone else.”
Like the best personal essayists—Joan Didion comes to mind immediately—Solnit can dive into memory and narrative, personal history, the journey of family members to a new country, her own journeys, and have them all resonate within the reader. Her personal becomes personal for us. The narrative is not lost in translation, but carried forward on the strength of its composition with grace and resonance. There are deeply felt emotions here, but Solnit avoids sentimentality or nostalgia. She observes with clarity and a razor-sharp perspective. Could her skill as a truth teller be due to her own history? She thinks so: “I think sometimes that I became a historian because I didn’t have a history, but also because I was interested in telling the truth in a family in which truth was an elusive entity.”
That is the strength of her writing in both books. She is the scientist, the environmentalist, the storyteller, combining strands of life and memory into a coherent, crystalized picture of the world. To Solnit, getting lost in the world is a necessary transfigurative experience. The stranger is uncomfortable, disturbed on an almost molecular level because he has lost his way, but that is a good thing. She compares this to early explorers or settlers lost or captured by natives in the new world. “Often, initially, these strays and captives felt that they were far from home,” she writes, “distant from their desires, and then at some point, in a stunning reversal, they came to be at home and what they had longed for became remote, alien, unwanted…the dreams of home must have faded by stages among the increasingly familiar details of their surroundings.”
Her writing is Emersonian and beautifully rich with metaphor, one of the most potent of which is the butterfly. The death of the caterpillar begets the butterfly. Decay is necessary and inevitable for rebirth, and becoming lost is a way of recovering the self. So our journeys into the unknown of our lives are a way of transforming ourselves into the beautiful.
Solnit’s personal transformation comes at a crossroads in her life, the death of a friend and the death of her father. These events forced her into letting go of what was. “I wrestled with some highly educational demons,” she writes. “I quit my job and embarked on the life I’m still living, that of an independent writer…I lost a whole life and gradually gained another one, more open and more free.” This is what awaits us on our own journey into being lost, the caterpillar into a chrysalis and finally into a butterfly.
She ends this book with a recurring image that will carry into The Faraway Nearby: the image of Russian nesting dolls, one inside the other, and each successive doll becoming smaller and smaller. In this way she conveys that life is an existence of interdependency. This plays into her writing as an environmentalist. In both books, she uses geography such as deserts and frozen tundra as the set piece backdrops to events in her life, like recovery from illness or a difficult relationship with a significant other. Her stories nest inside each other, and the narratives are enveloped and intertwined, giving a wonderful symmetry to her writing. In our lives, we cannot escape the nesting of stories, and Solnit’s argument is, why would we want to? She believes we must welcome getting lost in this world, at every level, on every overgrown path.
The Faraway Nearby, her most recent book, picks up again with her themes, but here the controlling metaphor is 100 pounds of apricots from her mother’s tree which now sit on a sheet in the middle of her bedroom floor. She is forced to pick out the rotting ones almost daily, and cannot decide what to do with so much fruit. The apricots are a windfall from the sale of her mother’s house as she is moved into a home for Alzheimer’s patients. Through this bounty and the resulting dilemma, Solnit is able to transition into an analysis of her relationship with her mother. The book begins and ends with the apricots, and the chapters are like rungs on a ladder leading up and then back down. She echoes Joan Didion’s great essay in the opening pages: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment.”
Solnit again examines her own life, and the chapters are a palindrome that mirrors her mother’s Alzheimer’s. Where she was once a mirror of her mother, now her mother mirrors her, an adult who has been rendered a child by a brain-wasting disease. Through this mirror, we see how Solnit broke free from her past. Her motto: “Never turn down an adventure without a really good reason.” It is this motto that launched her on a thousand journeys, several of them key in her life.
Along the way, she uses literature and history again to cement her ideas together, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the global impact of an erupting volcano, the history of the Tang dynasty, the science of methamphetamine, and the letters of Georgia O’Keefe, from whom Solnit got her book’s title. A major portion of the book is a meditation on her own disease of breast cancer, but she approaches the subject differently than any other writer I’ve encountered. In her writing she owes more to Susan Sontag’s essay work on illness, but she gives it her own particular nuances. She spends her recovery in Iceland, which becomes yet another geographical set piece for the healing and the recovery of self. She learns on this particular leg of the journey that “nearly all things live by the death of other things.” Her meditations on illness lead her to consider Che Guevara and his work in a leper colony, and how this led him to be the legend and revolutionary we all know so well. Disease, death, disappointments, failures—all remake us into different people, like those lost and never found again because they have changed so completely into something else.
“Life was in those days grim,” she tells us. “I marched forward in determination to move through the ordeals that had sprung up one after another and come out the other end. I was old enough to know that I would and that the grimness was passing weather, but it didn’t pass rapidly. Now I can see that I was going to be remade, and the timing seemed good after the ordeals of the season before.” Again, she is the caterpillar accepting the transformation of the chrysalis. “Mostly we tell the story of our lives, or mostly we’re taught to tell it, as a quest to avoid suffering, though if your goal is a search for meaning, honor, experience, the same events may be victories or necessary steps.” In her illness, she sees that “Many lives have a moment of rupture that is an awakening and a change of direction…The moment when mortality, ephemerality, uncertainty, suffering, or the possibility of change arrives can split a life in two.”
In the end, upon returning to those apricots, Solnit believes “that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art.” All suffering, all transformation, all rebirth, all of life’s intricacies nest in art, inside of each level, each chapter of the greater book of us. “And this book,” Solnit asks, “who drinks your tears, who has your wings, who hears your story?”
To answer these questions, one must read these books by Rebecca Solnit, and then find the response somewhere out there, within, lost, so faraway yet paradoxically, so nearby.