I have worked with some other people to start a monthly writing group and this was one of our exercises, to write about an author whose writing you find influential. I’ll include my piece on this below:
Rebecca Solnit is an American author that I only discovered upon moving to New Zealand. The first book of hers that I read was A Field Guide to Getting Lost, it seemed appropriate for me, as I was feeling adrift in my life, having just moved around the world and I was trying to get my bearings. This book examines many different kinds of getting lost, from getting lost in the woods, lost in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, lost in mental illness, losing one’s cultural heritage, getting lost in art, and losing one’s thread in life. Solnit explores these themes in a loose, and rambling manner, sometimes seeming to get lost herself, so that the reader asks, “where is all this leading, if anywhere?”
She quotes the pre-Socratic philosopher, Meno, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” She goes on to say that this seems to her the “basic tactical question in life.” “The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration – how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else (4-5)?” Through studying the various different ways of getting lost, Solnit is secretly exploring the different ways of growing, changing, and transforming one’s self through the engagement in the painful and darker things in life. She often quotes Henry David Thoreau (another reason I like her books), for instance, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations,” (15).
This permission to be lost in order to find oneself, came at a great time for me, as I struggled with my own issues of identity, place, and belonging. I have long felt an outsider, and yet there are other times that I am very much an insider in certain situations. I have worked to make sense of my life by following a thread that leads sometimes internally, sometimes externally, sometimes through the “inside” of a system, organization, or profession, and sometimes on the “outside.” It was comforting to me to feel that there is a point in getting lost, and that point is growth and transformation.
Another thing that I like about Solnit’s writing is that she is an idealist, a social activist, a realist, and a naturalist. She has a poetic sense and uses her own subjective experiences along with pursuing and developing ideas that don’t just sit on the shelf, but that engage with the world to create something positive. The next book of hers that I read was Hope In The Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. In this book, she outlines a definition of hope, how to keep hope alive, and how to stay positively engaged in life, even when it so often seems like all hope is lost.
What I like about Solnit’s writing is her embrace of idealism and realism, that when held together comprise paradox. Hope comes from despair, human connection asserts itself in the face of repression and disconnection, and one finds oneself through losing oneself. Other paradoxes that Solnit describes are that the word emergency contains within it the word emerge (12); and that darkness can represent both the creative darkness of the womb and or the terminal darkness of the grave (6). These paradoxes allow for both reality and idealism. Paradox allows for one to act in the world without having to be perfect, it allows for complexity, such as success and defeat both being present in the same action. Solnit argues that the very reasons for despair can also be the justification for engaging in the world. She defines the word, activist “to mean a particular kind of engagement – and a specific politic: one that seeks to democratize the world, to share power, to protect difference and complexity, human and otherwise,” (18).
Solnit argues 3 points in favour of hope: 1) when looked at historically, many positive changes have occurred already in terms of human rights; 2) change “takes place in more protracted, circuitous, surprising ways than is often acknowledged;” and 3) despair is often a result of misunderstanding change, thinking that only success validates hope, and thinking that activism is the exception rather than the rule of continual engagement in life (pgs. 151-152).
I came across Rebecca Solnit’s writing at a very good time for me. Personally, my decisions to move from the US to New Zealand were due to both a pulltowards New Zealand and a push away from the economic and political problems in the US. Moving to another country brought up issues of identity and belonging for me, as well as the familiar question of to what extent am I an insider and to what extent am I an outsider. In addition to the Solnit’s positive messages about the benefits of getting lost and the necessity and reality of hope, she is American in the best sense of the word. She frequently draws on the best American principles, such as Thoreau’s civil disobedience, love of nature, and opposition to slavery. She also draws on the struggles and victories of many Americans who are unknown to the larger world and history.
Solnit also draws on voices of freedom from around the world, such as an unknown person who goes by the name Subcommandante Marcos, a leader of the Zapatista movement in Mexico. Marcos has issued a series of proclamations. An excerpt from the Fourth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle reads, “A new lie is being sold to us as history. The lie of the defeat of hope, the lie of the defeat of dignity, the lie of the defeat of humanity…In place of humanity, they offer us the stock market index. In place of dignity, they offer us the globalization of misery. In place of hope, they offer us emptiness. In place of life, they offer us an International of Terror. Against the International of Terror…we must raise an International of Hope. Unity beyond borders, languages, colors, cultures, sexes, strategies and thoughts, of all those who prefer a living humanity. The International of Hope. Not the bureaucracy of hope, not an image inverse to, and thus similar to, what is annihilating us. Not power with a new sign or new clothes. A flower, yes, that flower of hope,” (39-40). To me, Solnit’s writing stands for these universal human rights: the International of Hope and the flower of hope; the engagement with a “living humanity;” and also the best of American ideals and pragmatism. Last of all, Solnit argues that the act of writing, itself is an act of hope. She states that writing “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,” (65).