Interviews March 2006

Terra Incognita

Essayist Rebecca Solnit, the author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, discusses the art of falling off the map

With this book, I wanted to let personal stories lead to the impersonal, to break out of memoir as the trap I often feel it is. I've read enough memoirs that sound like what you tell your therapist—the kind of "all me, all the time" solipsism. Traditional memoir is usually a story of overcoming. But I feel that the version of self you often encounter in memoirs is, in itself, something that needs to be overcome. Part of how you overcome that limited sense of self is by connecting your personal story to these larger stories—remembering that other people suffer, that there are other things going on in the world, that even when you're going through a huge tragedy, you can be enchanted or bewitched by some fascinating thing that comes along and forget yourself. Which is also a way of getting lost.

Do you subscribe to Jack Kerouac's method of "spontaneous prose," or do you do a lot of careful editing?

I'm kind of against the Kerouacan notion of spontaneity. You know, there are moments where everything just flows. But I've always been surprised by those people who produce the big, monstrous, sloppy, half-thought-out first draft. When I talk to students and people who are still flailing with their writing, I encourage them to make lots of notes, to collect their sources, put their Post Its in the books—but to wait until they really have a strong sense of pattern and tone and purpose before they start writing. Because although I'm all for getting lost, I'm not for getting stuck, and I've always found you can get very stuck with spontaneous writing.

So I spend a lot of time beforehand. I edit a lot, but it's usually fine-tuning. I try to avoid that situation where you've essentially put together a Frankenstein's monster and you say, "But I didn't want those legs! I need to take out all the organs." You can really get into some nasty hacking and chopping. That's what creates a lot of the misery of writing for people. It's very uninspiring trying to smash up something you've just built.

Along with your prose collections, you've written the text for a number of photography books. In Richard Misrach's Sky Book, for instance, you wrote essays about clouds and constellations to accompany his images. As someone whose writing is so fluid and personal, do you find it limiting to collaborate in that way?

I like those kinds of challenges, where you're working with a set of rules and you have to figure out the possibilities that are remaining—given that you will talk about this and you will address that, and you won't go off on a tangent. I find that it can be quite creative. It's been very rewarding, actually, thinking with these photographers. And I've always found it fruitful to be around the visual arts. There's a scale of questioning—really basic questions about making, about being, about space, that don't always get asked in writing and are very valuable to the things I want to think about.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost has an unusual structure. In between your five ordinary chapters, you've inserted four little interludes, each called "The Blue of Distance." What did you have in mind when you decided to write those four identically named sections?

This book was more improvisational than usual. It was actually written in pieces, although the pieces ended up fitting together really nicely. Then my editor said the book was lovely but too short, and did I have anything I wanted to add? It had a clear beginning and a clear end, so you couldn't just tack something on. So I wrote the "Blue of Distance" chapters, which I ended up thinking were very valuable additions just for kind of "cooling down" the book in some ways. The other chapters are very personal—people die and go mad and suffer, that sort of thing. "The Blue of Distance" chapters, I think, are happily impersonal, like the palate cleansers between courses.

In the course of this book, you bring out all kinds of facts about tortoises and John Keats and small indigenous tribes. Are these just tidbits you'd come across in your own personal reading, or did you pointedly research the subject of getting lost?

There are some things I pay attention to on an ongoing basis, western histories and biologies and endangered species. These are things I'm kind of always tracking. I actually download a couple of stories a week and put them in a file I call "histories." I keep returning to the Death Valley 49ers, certain parts of California history. For this book, I reread those histories to find the parts that illuminated the particular questions I was asking.

And then I started to see the patterns that connected those endangered desert tortoises with the endangered species of San Francisco and with what the San Francisco landscape has become as it grows for us humans and shrinks for them. I'd also read that magnificent memoir by Carobeth Laird, Encounter With an Angry God, where she became an ethnographer to the Chemehuevi Indians, and I went and read other books of hers that connected so well to these ideas of traveling and knowing. You become a magpie, picking out the shiny bits of information. If you're lucky, you can locate them again when it's time to use them.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg is associate editor of The Atlantic Online.

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