‘Become a producer of meaning’: Author Rebecca Solnit discusses writing about disasters at Elon University

Marlena Chertock

FEB. 21, 2011

Rebecca Solnit discussed freelance writing and researching disasters at Elon University on Feb. 21, 2011. Photo by Marlena Chertock.

When Rebecca Solnit took a year off from her job in 1988 to write a book, she never went back. Solnit had found her passion.

When a person finds out what she wants to do, she has to do something about it, Solnit said.

Solnit is a non-fiction writer. She received a master’s in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley. She researches and writes about visual art, the environment, climate change, how people react to natural disasters and many other projects. Her most recent book “A Paradise Built in Hell” focuses on how disaster “puts people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities,” according to an E-net article.

“My interests shift around a little bit, but I just feel like a nomad on a regular migration route,” she said.

Solnit had a nontraditional start. She went to an alternative high school and at 17 she went to study in Paris.

“I managed to skip high school, which is how I didn’t get all my weirdness ironed out,” she said.

The reason she became interested in disasters is the moment of egalitarianism, pedestrianism and public space that is created amidst the chaos, she said.

"I believe in whatever allows people to live their lives with as much liberty, creativity, voice, public participation, as much decentralization as possible, as little hierarchy as possible," Solnit said. "Opposite of that is corporate control where we have no say, unnacountable institutions where people don't have a voice."She doesn’t become involved in a topic that she will never think about again. One thing leads to another and everything seems related, Solnit said.

Switching projects requires a certain amount of juggling.

“I always hear the sound of Velcro ripping as I rearrange my mind,” Solnit said. “Too much work, too many interesting things to do, too much to think about, these are the problems I always wanted to have.”

Creative writing programs have an emphasis on ethics, responsibility towards readers, the subjects and the truth, according to Solnit. So does her work.

The purpose of all creative work is to become a producer rather than a consumer of meaning, Solnit said.

“To become an alternative voice, to help people think and see for themselves,” she said. “To make you feel grateful, more awake, more alive, more empathic, more ethical.”

The media could use a course in what really goes on in a disaster and a history of their own mistakes to help report on disasters, Solnit said.

People running away from World Trade Towers were described by the media as running away in panic.

“But it’s not chaos, it’s people saving themselves from chaos,” Solnit said.

She hopes to make a contribution to writing the history of the West, she said.

"I believe in nonviolence," Solnit said. "I believe in economic justice, but not through authoritarian means. I believe everything you believe is political, but not everything you write has to have politics as the subject."In academic disciplines there’s a belief that one understands a subject better by becoming more and more focused or specialized, according to Solnit. She calls this microscopic research.

“While that’s valuable research, at the same time I feel a lot of my work is about seeing patterns,” she said. “You can’t see it if the focus is smaller.”

As a writer Solnit gets to have adventures for a living, she said.

“It’s kind of wonderful that you’re in conversations with people you’ve never met, people on the other side of the world, that you’re kind of picking up conversations that might have started a thousand years ago, that you might be contributing to a conversation that may never finish,” Solnit said of her work.

To become a good writer, people have to practice writing, work hard, work smart, have good connections, be organized and be original, Solnit said.

“I think originality counts,” she said. “Not finding new subjects, but new ways to think about them.”"You're a better writer if you're writing about what you're passionate about," Solnit said.

It helps to go one step at a time to become successful, according to Solnit. Solnit started publishing reviews, then longer essays, shorter books, then longer books, each becoming more demanding, she said.

“I used to think being successful meant you’re only doing one thing at a time,” she said. “Now I’m doing 35 things at a time. But one step at a time can get you anywhere you want,” she said.

Solnit offered a tip for beginning writers or freelancers: live below your means.

“This has been one of my secrets,” Solnit said. “I see so many people who aren’t leading the life they want because of all the exciting things they’re paying for that they don’t really need. There’s insane consumption and waste.”

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