Tag Archives: Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit and How to be a Writer

Rebecca Solnit is a writer I admire very much. She writes beautifully and she writes about important things: walking, hope, distortions in public life, feminism, and above all about the importance of having a voice. This theme runs through all her writing. You will find links to several posts that refer to her work at the end of this one.

About a year ago Lithub.com published How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit. In every one of her 10 tips there was some wisdom and wit. If you are a writer you might do no better than read the original: here.

How to be a writer

I like to read books about writing, and books for writers. I like to read the advice of writers I admire, including Rebecca Solnit even if they say the things I have heard before, seen everywhere. Here are my responses to her tips:

Write and read

To be a writer you must write and you must read. Thanks also to Stephen King (1999) On Writing, Anne Lamott (1994) Bird by Bird, Francine Prose (2006) Reading Like a Writer and to many other writers. To write well you must write, write lots, write frequently, write more. And you must read, read recently published books and read from the past, read in your field and outside it, read for pleasure and to critique. Read.

Writing is more than typing

I love Rebecca Solnit’s claim that writing is more than typing because it gives me a reason to walk on Dartmoor or by the sea, to visit places, to talk to people about my writing and to practice my developing skills as a writer.

Remember that writing is not typing. Thinking, researching, contemplating, outlining, composing in your head and in sketches, maybe some typing with revisions as you go and then more revisions, emendations, additions, reflections, setting aside and returning afresh, because a good writer is always a good editor of his or her own work.

All those actions – 12 of them listed above – are necessary. I was involved in all of these this morning as I grappled with redrafting the opening scene of a short story. I related particularly to emendations, additions, reflections, and now the draft sits waiting for the next time I work on it, set aside.

Pay attention to your own feedback

Listen to your own feedback and remember that you move forward through mistakes and stumbles and flawed but aspiring work, not perfect pirouettes performed in the small space in which you originally stood.

Pirouettes indeed! But yes, and this is difficult, learning to listen to your own responses to you writing.

I read the sentence again and note the perfect rhythm of the sentence. And also that it perfectly captures the difference between learning to develop capacity and skill and learning to perform for a test or for popularity.

You need some time, some passion and a little joy

All writers know this, but it’s good to say it out loud, or to write it down:

It [writing] takes time. This means you have to find the time.

And you need to believe in what you are writing, so this requires passion and joy:

If you’re not passionate about writing and about the world and the things in it you’re writing about, then why are you writing?

Good question. And you need to bring the joy to bear when you might not feel up to the writing, when inspiration is lacking, and around you everything is depressing.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, and referring back to the importance of voice she says:

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency.

The artist produces meaning rather than consuming it.

Thank you Rebecca Solnit.

And I shall be I the audience when you visit Bristol on 1st November 2017. Rebecca Solnit will be in more places in the UK around that time.

Some links

How to Be Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit on Lithub.com

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit in January 2017

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

Men Explain Things to Me and other essays by Rebecca Solnit (2014) Granta. I posted on Bookword about this book and mansplaining in May 2015

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit, published by Granta, September 2017.

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A rant … about how books are described

Few things are as annoying as finding a novel described in this way: ‘a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka’. Really? L’Etranger by Albert Camus is a Hemingway rewrite of Kafka? I don’t think so.

It annoys me because this description, from the Spectator, does no favours to Camus, Hemingway or Kafka, and moreover nor does it help the reader understand anything about L’Etranger. In fact, I find it such a confusing amalgam of writers that my brain rejects the whole idea. Why are books described in this way?

Other examples

Sad reader that I am, I have been collecting some recent examples that grated on me.

Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a very affirming short book about the importance and power of seeing alternatives to the present situation, and the importance of books in achieving this. It’s an important book. So what can we make of this description, included in the front pages?

Like Simon Schama, Solnit is a cultural historian in the desert-mystic mode, trailing ideas like butterflies. (Harper’s)

My brain baulks at three things in these two lines. Why did the Harper’s reviewer want to couple Simon Schama to Rebecca Solnit? Is the reviewer saying, Look at me! I read cultural history! And what on earth is the desert–mystic mode, and does it tell the potential reader anything about these writers? I don’t know any desert-mystics and I am fairly sure that it is not helpful to describe either of these writers as in this mode. And finally the image of the butterflies is contrary to my experience of them. Butterflies are more likely to flit away than trail after a writer. So even if you miss out the first three words, the reviewer still provides no idea about the value of Hope in the Dark. Please read more about it here, with no reference to Simon Schama, or deserts or butterflies.

Elizabeth Strout, in writing Amy and Isabelle, is twice likened to other writers.

This beautifully nuanced novel steers a course somewhere between the whimsy of Alice Hoffman, and the compassionate insight of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller, and is sure to delight fans of all three. (Publisher’s weekly)

And as if three (female) writers were not comparison enough we also get this from another review:

Alice Munro fans should lap up this atmospheric and tender novel (Image)

Independent People by Halldor Laxman (1934-5) is a big story about the hard rural life in Iceland. A gnomic comment on the rear cover of my copy merely says:

See also Far From the Madding Crowd.

And Thin Air by Michelle Paver (2016) is described in this way:

… like Touching the Void rewritten by Jack London Thin Air is a heart-freezing masterpiece (The Guardian).

Is Amazon to blame?

We could blame Amazon for this way of describing books, because long ago the website introduced the idea that ‘if you like this book you might also like x, y or z.’ And ‘People who viewed book x also bought book y’. This can be annoying, but I admit that at times it can be helpful.

Marketing by publishers?

These comparisons, extracted from reviews, have a use for publishers,. Quoting them is intended to promote less well-known, less-purchased books on the back of more successful authors. Readers must be hooked in to buy with the hope that by association of the two books the potential purchaser will buy this one. It has a secondary function; the comparison with another known author together with the cover signal the book’s genre – chick lit, noir, classic whodunits and historical romances. It helps the reader place the book.

Not so common now?

I have a feeling that the practice of comparisons, or likenings, is less common than it used to be. But I am not sure. Perhaps I pay less attention to blurbs now my tbr pile is so big, influenced more by reviews and recommendations by friends and fellow-bloggers than reading the blurb.

But it irritates me to bits. I don’t want to know what books or authors are brought to mind for a reviewer. I want to know its quality, something of its plot, about that book, not other books.

What do you think?

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What is Fiction for?

As I continue to worry about the world in which we live, I have been asking the question more and more frequently, what is fiction for? What can fiction do to enhance the chances of improving how we live? In the last couple of months I have written about the need to counter some expressions of xenophobia, narrowness, hatred and racism. Here is something to which fiction can contribute.

Lady with book by Vanessa Bell

I do not want to detract from the purpose of escapism and entertainment for which fiction is well suited and does a grand job. However, when I read fiction I usually want more than this. Escapism, entertainment and a good story are not enough in my reading. I’m with Susan Sontag who said that writers have moral purpose.

So what is fiction for beyond escapism and entertainment?

I go back to some writers to find what they think they are doing, what is their moral purpose. There seem to be at least three related functions:

  1. Experiencing new territories
  2. Building hope
  3. Building empathy

Here is Margaret Drabble in the Paris Review in 1978 in reply to the question, What would you say is the function of the novel?

I don’t think it’s to teach, but I don’t think it’s simply to entertain, either. It’s to explore new territory. To extend one’s knowledge of the world. And to illumine what one sees in it. That’s a fairly moral concept, isn’t it?

And Neil Gaiman, in a lecture for the Reading Agency called Why our Future Depends on Libraries: reading and daydreaming in 2013 also uses a spatial metaphor. Fiction’s first value is to be the gateway to reading for children, he says.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. … You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Like Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, Neil Gaiman believes that fiction has an important role in building hope, by showing readers that the world can be different. He goes on:

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.

Salley Vickers is a novelist who has also trained as a psychoanalyst. She wrote Miss Garnett’s Angel in 2000. She enlarges on the function of fiction:

Reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience.

President Obama told the NY Times about his reading practices, including reading novels, in January this year.

And so I think that I found myself better able to imagine what’s going on in the lives of people throughout my presidency because of not just a specific novel but the act of reading fiction. It exercises those muscles, and I think that has been helpful.

Some fiction has political purposes. I think of three books about war that changed my perceptions: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and Dispatches by Michael Herr. Empathy can be an important impetus to political action.

In a post about a collection called A Country of Refuge I suggested that writers should be doing the following:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

An in a post about How Bookish people can have Hope in Dark Days I wrote this.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. … We also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Fiction, then, is important to keep in mind the possibilities of other ways in which the world can be, to face us with some unpalatable truths and above all to develop empathy, without which we are surely doomed. But we are not doomed! We have fiction and can write more fiction. Read! Write! Eat the fairy fruit!

Any thoughts?

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How Bookish People can have Hope in Dark Days

Powerful malign forces are about in the world, and they work to disempower us. Yet there are also strong alternative expressions of a more positive view of human lives. While some may feel they must hide away until the danger is passed, others are seeking to find ways to give impetus to the strong humanitarian, democratic and positive currents. There are bookish things to do.

It has been a dreadful 18 months

Since the political scene turned toxic about 18 months ago, when the Conservatives were re-elected in the UK to continue the austerity regime, it has felt more and more hopeless to stand against the reductionist and discriminatory agendas gaining ground in democracies. Reactions to migration across the Mediterranean, the vote in favour of leaving the EU, and then the election of Trump, despite his behaviour, all this has been nearly overwhelming. Almost, but not yet overwhelming.

I take heart from some bookish people who remind us that dark days do not equate with the end of hope. Let’s start with Rebecca Solnit.

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit

This book was originally written in the dark days of 2004, but has had some later additions in 2016 in response to more dark days. It is an important book for in it Rebecca Solnit suggests that without hope we are disempowered. No defeatism here! Hope implies the possibility of a better future, not one that will arrive simply by putting one’s head down and hoping for the best, but hope that indicates that action is required.

She describes some of the improvements that we now take for granted, such as votes for women, or changes in East Timor, or attitudes to LGBT lives. She reminds us that behind the imperfect victories in these areas have been movements of people, hundreds of discussions, oppositional acts, challenges, visions of alternatives, all the slow growth of the groundswell of opinion. The hope lay with Suffragettes and other supporters of women’s votes, with those who published stories of the atrocities on East Timor, and the campaigns to promote LGBT rights.

In order to keep hope alive we need to tell the stories of action, alternatives, truth when it is obscured. For me this means not accepting the new American administration press secretary Sean Spicer’s comments to the press, designed it seems to intimidate, about the attendance at Trump’s inauguration. Rather to look for evidence. Trump appears to have declared war on the press, and it seems to me that we must support them in prosecuting their trade: finding evidence, demanding Trump’s Income Tax returns, telling, as they say, truth to power.

But further than uncovering lies and misleading information (don’t forget that bus) we also need to tell stories of how it could be. Hope opens us up to the possibilities that we can work towards. Here bookish people, as well as the press, have a very significant role to play. There are both histories and fictions. History reminds us how far we have come and how. Fiction stretches the imagination, the future possibilities for humans.

Rebecca Solnit points out that this is not fast or direct action.

This is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler. Thoreau’s 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience” finally found its readers in the twentieth century when it was put into practice as part of the movements that changed the world. (Thoreau’s voice was little heard in his time, but it echoed across the continent in the 1960s and has not left us since. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Walter Benjamin, and Arthur Rimbaud, like Thoreau, achieved their greatest impact long after their deaths, long after weeds had grown over the graves of most of the bestsellers of their lifetime.)

You write your books. You scatter your seeds. Rats might eat them, or they might rot. In California some seeds lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire, and sometimes the burned landscape blooms most lavishly. (66-67)

Don’t be overwhelmed by ‘the defeatist perspective’, she argues. Talk about ‘both the terrible things we should engage with and the losses behind us, as well as the wins and achievements that give us confidence to endeavour to keep pursuing the possibilities.’ (142)

Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Canongate (2004 with additions 2016) 152pp

Letter from Birmingham City Jail by Martin Luther King

We must retell Martin Luther King’s story. In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail in April 1963, Martin Luther King noted four steps to successful nonviolent resistance. Originally a riposte to eight Alabama clergymen who accused him of being an outsider, it became a foundational text for the civil rights movement, but also for the struggle for social justice and equality everywhere. Here are three extracts:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps:

  1. collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive

  2. negotiation;

  3. self-purification; and

  4. direct action.

I was trained as a historian. Evidence, evidence, evidence. Collect the facts! Pay attention to details!

We who engage in non-violent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured as long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its pus-flowing ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must likewise be exposed, with all of the tension its exposing creates to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

For more on this see Maria Popova’s brainpickings of March 18th 2015.

Paul Auster

The reaction of the American writer Paul Auster to Trump’s victory has been astonishment, and then asking the question what could he do, how could he live his life. He has decided to act.

I have come to the conclusion to accept something that has been offered to me again and again over the years – to become [stand for] president of PEN America. I have been vice-president, and secretary, but I’ve never wanted to take on the full burden. I’ll start early in 2018. I’m going to speak out as often as I can, otherwise I don’t think I can live with myself. From the Guardian January 2017.

He will speak out, supporting an organisation that works against freedom of expression for writers.

Bookish actions

Community of readers has plenty to do it seems to me. Reading. Retelling stories of hope and injustice. Writing stories of hope. Showing us different views of the future.

And as citizens we must support both the law and the press that currently stand in the front line between us and tyranny in both the UK and the US. The press must go on asking awkward questions, must reveal unpalatable truths, seek out and present evidence of wrong-doing, and success.

We who write must write in hope and remind readers not to despair.

Paignton Library 2015

Related blog posts

Not a Bookblogger’s New Year List (January 2017)

Men Explain things to me by Rebecca Solnit (May 2015)

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit in Bookword in Alsace (May 2015)

Steps to Improve your Writing (August 2016)

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Men Explain Things to Me

I’m out walking with a friend. We check the map to be sure where we turn off the path. ‘Are you lost?’ a passing man asks. And he proceeds to take the map from us and to tell us where we are (we knew) and which road to take (ditto). Is that a familiar scenario? It’s the kind of thing Rebecca Solnit would recognise, and she wrote about it in her essay Men Explain Things to Me. Originally published on the TomDispatch blog in April 2008, the essay led to the coining of the word ‘mansplaining’, although not by Rebecca Solnit herself, who avoids the implication that ‘men are inherently flawed in this way’ (see dedication below).

175 Men exp coverReading about walking and how walking and writing and story telling are interconnected I came across the wonderful and multi-talented and multi-knowledgeable Rebecca Solnit. I referred to The Faraway Nearby in my previous post (here), and how it distracted me from other reading while on my walking holiday. I had been waiting for the publication in book form of her essay Men Explain Things to Me since I came across references to it and to her writing. It’s available now.

Men Explain Things to Me

‘Every woman knows what I am talking about,’ says Rebecca Solnit, as she gave her hilarious account of a man explaining. She told him she had been writing about Muybridge, and he informed her that she should read this important book that had just been published. He resisted three or four attempts by a friend to let him know that this was Rebecca Solnit’s book before he finally took it in. ‘He went ashen.’

Giving explanations of this kind involves not listening, and denies a voice to, woman, suggests they don’t know about things and implies women’s ignorance and their need for the authoritative material to be delivered by a man.

But Rebecca Solnit’s essay is about much more than the annoying experience of being mansplained, silenced, assumed ignorant. In a postscript reflecting on responses to this essay (including being told by some men that she didn’t know what she was writing about) she included these paragraphs, leading us into the other essays in this collection:

I surprised myself when I wrote this essay, which began with an amusing incident and ended with rape and murder. That made clear to me the continuum that stretches from minor social misery to violent silencing and violent death (and I think we would understand misogyny and violence against women even better if we looked at the abuse of power as a whole rather than treating domestic violence separately from rape and murder and harassment and intimidation, online and at home and in the workplace and in the streets; seen together, the pattern is clear).

Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity and to liberty. I’m grateful that, after an early life of being silenced, sometimes violently, I grew up to have a voice, circumstances that will always bind me to the rights of the voiceless. (16)

The Big Picture

The dedication to this collection of essays begins

For the grandmothers, the levellers, the men who get it, the young women who keep going, the older ones who opened the way …

I especially admire Rebecca Solnit’s ability to draw the bigger picture, to link the minor social misery to more extreme and brutal forms of silencing. In a more recent essay (2011) she draws a very clear parallel between the IMF’s exploitation of third world countries and the assault by Strauss-Kahn, the ex-head of the IMF, and other men of power of women, who often come from the same exploited areas of the world (Worlds Collide in a Luxury Suite: some thoughts on the IMF, global injustice and a stranger on a train).

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the "Abode of Chaos" museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Dominique Strauss-Kahn graffiti in the “Abode of Chaos” museum of contemporary art, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d’Or, Rhône-Alpes region, France. Picture by Tierry Ehrmann via Wikicommons

Rape, and the fight back by the women of Delhi, the ‘disappeared’ of South America and the mothers and grandmothers who would not be silenced about their loved ones, gropers on trains who are pelted with grapefruits, the struggle for marriage equality and how gay marriage has challenged the traditional institution of marriage, the removal of women from history through male genealogies, and mansplaining; they are all connected, reproduce inequality, demean us all and silence so many.

175 Womenppower symbolShe pays too frequent tribute to ‘the men who get it’ for me, but I guess that in this collection of previously published essay each one has to reassure readers that some men do get it, and that’s a good thing. Actually it is an important message that men are not inherently flawed. If they were change would be impossible and there would be no hope for the world.

There may not be anyway, but that’s another aspect of this story.

The writing

Beautiful prose. Such a knowledgeable writer. Again, you should read Rebecca Solnit.

 

Rebecca Solnit (2014) Men Explain Things to Me and other essays Granta Books 130pp

For a blogger’s take on Mansplaining in detective fiction see Miss Marple vs the Mansplainers: Agatha Christie’s Feminist Detective Hero by Alice Bolin on the Electric Lit blog.

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Bookword in Alsace

I spent the first week of May this year walking in Alsace. I took some reading, heard some excellent stories and came across some bookish things along the way. Here’s one of them, seen on a gatepost on our last day, walking through Ammerschwihr, a village between Turckheim and Kaysersberg.

174 stone girl reading

Reading in Alsace

I planned to read The Erl-King by Michel Tournier in my non-walking hours. It was the only Alsace-related novel I had found that interested me. But I didn’t finish it before my return. This was because

  1. I was also reading the fabulous Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and thoroughly immersed in her erudite and fascinating writing about Frankenstein, Innuits, Che Guevara, apricots, the Grand Canyon and other equally engaging topics. Much of her book is about having a voice and the importance telling stories.
  2. I was worn out by walking up and up and down. I needed a wee lie down every afternoon.

I also took with me to read the latest in Peirene’s subscription: Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean. I will finish both these French books very soon and you may find more about them on this blog.

Stories in Alsace

On hearing about the witches of Riquewihr I amused my fellow walkers by exclaiming that the region must be one of the most sexist! The witches’ dispatch was necessary for the quality of the grape harvests, we were told. And the female saints of Alsace, in particular, had a very hard time: St Odile and St Richarde. Both were treated badly by men close to them who should have known better.

174 storks

Storks did rather better than saints. We came across this charming pair of storks in Katzanthal. Their ‘swinging’ habits could have contributed a few episodes to a soap opera. I think this is Marguerite and her new partner Arnold. But it might be Balthazar, her original partner, with her younger replacement, who currently ‘keeps him company’.

174 vineyardsOur walks provided ample stimulus for a storyteller’s imagination: castles, Hansel and Gretel houses, Heidi meadows and dark woods. And if the creativity lagged there was always the wine, the vineyards, the Rhine valley and the people we met along the way.

174 castles

Book Exchange

I nearly missed this delightful book corner in Ribeauville, as I was distracted by grit in both my eyes. But what a delightful and low key way of keeping books in circulation, with the added assistance or forbearance of the French postal service.

174 book box

Walking, Writing and Reading

In a section of her book I read Rebecca Solnit’s thoughts about labyrinths, reading, walking and books:

In this folding up of a great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book. Imagine all the sentences in this book. Imagine that they could be unwound; that you could walk the line they make, or are walking it. Reading is also travelling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and your understanding. (188-9)

This connection between some of my favourite activities – reading, writing and walking – is most satisfying and a good excuse for a post which is basically about what I did on my holidays!

174 Faraway coverI plan to explore more of Rebecca Solnit’s writing in the next post: Men Explain Things to Me. Meanwhile take this as a rather relaxed recommendation for The Faraway Nearby.

In the Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Published by Granta Books in 2014. 254 pp

 

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