A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Another book that came to me at just the right time thanks to Jessie van Eerden. I know of Rebecca Solnit, of course, but I think this is the first of her writing that I’ve read. I really enjoyed it in several aspects: its subject matter is very much in line with that of my thesis (that I’m currently writing); its structure is of interest and also has something to offer my own; the writing is lovely; the content it approaches is wide-ranging, and (as Jessie said early in this semester as we did a manuscript review), “I like to learn stuff.”

That said, it’s not an easy book to sum up. These collected essays are connected, but far from telling a narrative. Solnit is exploring the idea of getting lost and what it has to offer us; and that is ‘getting lost’ in several senses, geographic (I got off the trail and I was lost) and metaphoric (after my mother died I was lost, or I lost several years). Also the sense in which we lose both things and people: lose your keys, lose your mother (to death), lose a boyfriend (when you break up). She sees value in getting lost – sometimes it’s how we find ourselves – and notes that we don’t get lost much anymore. Late in the book, she looks at old maps with their ‘Terra Incognita,’ and observes that we don’t have terra incognita on our maps anymore. We know it all! Right? (Of course, we’ve thought we knew it all before, and been proven wrong.)

I’m using the sense of place tag here although it’s not quite right, which is perhaps a design flaw in my tag. By ‘sense of place,’ I have tended to mean a strong attachment to a certain place; so Jesse Donaldson’s writing about Kentucky, James Lee Burke’s New Iberia, Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, or Mary Karr’s southeast Texas. That is not what I found with Solnit, so much as a strong feeling about the importance of wandering, losing and finding oneself, in place and in other senses. Place plays an important role here. This book feels like it fits that tag, even though it doesn’t fit the tag as I originally conceived it. (This blog will be eight years old next month. Expect some scope creep.)

Structure-wise: there is a chapter-title refrain, with the heading The Blue of Distance (italicized, where the others aren’t) taking every other place between differently-titled essays. These are not the same essay over and over, but they all meditate on blue and its role in our observation of distance, beginning with the literal meaning (that is, that the sky and deep water both look blue for scientifically observable reasons) and moving through less-literal ones. Distance, it seems, is an inextricable part of one’s ability to get lost. My 600-square-foot house would be much harder to get lost in (tell that to my geriatric dog) than a 20-something room mansion would be. I really appreciated this design, the repeated title for very different essays; it was a succinct cue to the way in which they’re linked.

Another item I found interesting to note was Solnit’s references, the other thinkers she turns to. Some were perhaps unsurprising, as writers cite other writers: Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Katherine Anne Porter, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad. These are joined by Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Bobbie Gentry, Yves Klein, Plato, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Alfred Hitchcock (among many others). A huge number of minds contributed to Solnit’s own thought processes here – which are of course her own – and I was fascinated by the twists and turns. Again (and again), this is something I need in my own writing and that appeals to me. I can’t wait to tell Jessie how right-on she was with assigning me this book.

Obviously this Field Guide‘s usefulness to me is just beginning. You will like it, too, if you like far-ranging considerations of the human condition and where each of us as an individual might be or should be headed, if we’re thinking about it. I found it an engaging and curiously winding path, and I recommend it.


Rating: 8 shades of blue.

movie: The Gleaners and I (2000)

Recommended by the fabulously talented Jessie van Eerden. Writing my thesis with her this semester is a dream.

However, first thoughts on this movie were “wow, this is weird, why am I watching this?” and then I got into the groove. For one thing, it’s an interesting work of narrative nonfiction. Ostensibly, director Agnès Varda is concerned with an external subject: the longstanding tradition of gleaning, or collecting the leftovers of a harvest. She enters this subject via art – the paintings of Millet and Breton – but among and in between this external material, Varda looks back at herself. The moments that become personal make the whole thing work, for me. Which is not to say that I wish the whole thing had been personal, or I spent the rest of the movie waiting to learn more about our narrator, you understand. I’m just voicing again my preference for a present narrator. I appreciate external material that is commented upon by a personal voice. In fact, I pretty much require it, as a personal preference. Perhaps this is on my mind now because I’m working on my thesis, that book-length project “of publishable quality”… and I am appreciating that Jessie shares my feeling of being an essayist, of commenting on outside material from a personal perspective, rather than simply airing all my own thoughts and feelings. Personal essay, not memoir, if you will.

And that is what I’m getting out of this movie: the narrative stance. As well as the subject matter: not gleaning in particular, but the entry through art into a larger subject (I am writing about the Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell, Guy Clark, and Dominique de Menil, among others), as well as its metaphoric possibility. I really lit up when Varda noted the new, metaphoric uses of ‘gleaning’:

On this type of gleaning, of images, impressions, there is no legislation, and gleaning is defined figuratively as a mental activity. To glean facts, acts and deeds, to glean information. And for forgetful me, it’s what I have gleaned that tells where I’ve been. From Japan, I brought back in my case souvenirs I had gleaned.

She does a lot of using one hand to film the other hand, which is an interesting statement about art, right? (All that commentary about the memoir as navel-gazing!)

The Gleaners and I is a piece of art, concerned in part with art – the original paintings as inspiration; the artists Varda meets who create out of the refuse they scavenge – as well as several meanings of gleaning. The people in the French countryside consider gleaning in its old sense, bending down to pick up leftover crops lying on the ground after a harvest. Some see a difference between this act and picking, which is picking fruit or nuts or whatever off of trees, vs. bending to take off the ground. Then there is urban scavenging, dumpster diving and combing through curb leavings. And finally that metaphoric sense, in which I watch this movie and take with me – figuratively – the parts that are of most value to me.

Varda interviews a “painter and retriever” who picks up other people’s discards from the curbs to make art, not unlike a dear friend of mine: he says, “what’s good about these objects is that they have a past, they’ve already had a life, and they’re still very much alive. All you have to do is give them a second chance.” (I also love that he points out that the city council puts out maps of where this not-junk is going to be, and Varda responds that really, aren’t the maps so that the people can put out their junk? And he sort of chuckles and says yes, well, I read the maps in my own way.)

I’m really fascinated though at the assumption throughout – never challenged! – that this food is all “wasted” if people don’t eat it. One guy did say about unharvested grapes that otherwise “the wild boars and the birds will get them.” So… how is that a waste? No human got it, but it didn’t go to waste. Even the fruit that rots on the ground contributes to a system. Even if we’re compelled to make it about us: dirt is necessary for people to live, for everything to live, and rotting grapes help make dirt. I wrote to my artist-scavenger friend about this movie, and he responded: “There is an edict in the Old Testament about leaving behind a percent of crops for the animals. Old wisdom makes sense sometimes.” This seemed like a gaping hole to me. After all, we didn’t invent grapes. They grew on their own, for their own purposes: the purpose of the grape, and the bird and the wild boar. Shades of Amy Leach here…

The film is in French, with subtitles, and it’s dated. (It was released in 2000, but the narrative voice is very much “what is this new millennium nonsense” – filmed in the 90s, of course.) It’s also arty, a little slow-paced and introspective, which could contribute to its being a little less than accessible – it worked that way for me, early on. It had a little bit of the tone of Sherman’s March, but not nearly so off-putting for this viewer!

All in all, I was a touch slow to get involved but Varda’s Gleaners ended up being fascinating, thought-provoking, and memorable. It’s been haunting my thoughts. There’s a lot going on here, and I do recommend it, if you’re at all interested in… trash, food, the end of the world, reuse, art, or narrative perspectives. So, good for all thinking souls.


Rating: 8 cages interesting like boats, like violins.

Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips

I read this book for its structure: a short story collection with some longer pieces, of as many as 20 pages, but a number of shorter ones, just a page or two. With my advisor this semester, Jessie van Eerden, I am considering a similar structure for my thesis: interstitial pieces in among long ones. (I also read Jessie’s own thesis from her MFA program, which was awfully wonderful and I wish I could review it here for you! Also with the interstitial pieces, and so lovely. But as it’s not published, I guess I’ll leave it at that.) I was also glad to read Jayne Anne Phillips because she is important to West Virginia’s literary legacy. And she is from Buckhannon, where my own West Virginia Wesleyan College is located.

This is a beautiful and impressive collection in its effect. I found myself lost and involved in each story, one of those reading experiences where you forget where you are, look up baffled by the everyday world around you, thinking you were really in a dark bar in El Paso or walking the streets of an unnamed town decades ago. This effect makes it hard for me to analyze the craft of the book itself, but it is certainly to be admired. While these stories are, I think, unconnected, they share themes: the types of characters and the types of settings are all rough-hewn and struggling. Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times calls these “lush, violent, elegiac and sexually charged worlds,” and he writes that this book “would help light the landscape of the so-called dirty realists (Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Ford, Phillips and others), though the adhesive has pretty much come off that label.” I am turning to Garner’s words in part because this book so challenged me, and in part because I love that idea, the adhesive coming off the label.

Here is menace, violence, and sex, a good amount of it menacing and violent sex. It’s about loneliness and despair and the odd, quiet contentment. I’m not sure what to think, actually. And as to my original reason for reading Black Tickets – to examine its structure – I’m a bit lost, too. I would say the shorter stories contributed to the overall themes, tone, impression that make this book so strong. So did the longer ones.

How different is a story collection from an essay collection? What explains my difficulty here? If I find out, I’ll let you know.


Rating: 7 Ripple bottles.

residency readings, part I


Note: I am away for my residency period at school for two weeks or so. This is a previously scheduled post. I will respond to comments, but not as quickly as usual. Thanks for your patience, and thanks as always for stopping by.


As I’ve done before, I’m going to run through some of the reading I did to prepare for this summer’s residency. For more information, check out the schedule I’ll be keeping and the seminars I’ll be attending, including some information about assigned readings.

Going in order:

I tackled first Jon Corcoran‘s assigned packet of three stories by Alice Elliot Dark, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Flannery O’Connor. This was an easy, quick, and very enjoyable packet; all three stories were riveting. The O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” was the only one I was familiar with, and my least favorite of the three, with its unpleasant characters and dark themes; I’m looking forward to having some guidance with this one. The stories by Dark and Le Guin were pure pleasure, even though they too involve some darkness. I loved the realism of “In the Gloaming” contrasted with the fancy of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” with its twist at the end. The topic of Corcoran’s seminar is endings, and I struggle with this, myself, so I’m very much looking forward to it. (Although what I write are more essays than stories, less contained narrative – does this make my job harder? will his seminar offer me as much as it does the fiction writer?) Also, Jon Corcoran has been a visiting faculty member at our program before, and I liked him very much when we met last.

Next came Mesha Maren‘s packet for her seminar on language. I’m a fan of Mesha’s, too, and find her reading, speaking, and teaching very poised and impressive; I love language for its own sake, and I love a good neologism like ‘hishing’ (in her seminar’s title), so I came to this with anticipation. The packet opens with a 100-page book excerpt that nearly killed me, though. I think I took a week to read these 100 pages, which began so dry and (as far as I could tell) far from the content of this program that I thought maybe I was being pranked. It got better, but remained a challenge til the end. I am still trying to synthesize what I found in these pages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous.

This book strikes me as a sort of ecologic philosophy of language and especially of written language: what it means for humans to communicate as we do, in pre-historic/oral times and later, in what Abram calls alphabetic cultures. There are also different kinds of writing, from pictographic to rebuslike to the alphabet we know now, and the significant distinctions here are about how far away from sensorial the letters get: that is, from a pictograph that directly references a paw print or a cloud, to a letter like Q, referencing nothing (until you get into the history of the letter Q, that is). Abram is concerned with how far we get from nature and from a participatory, cooperative relationship with the more-than-human world. It gets to be interesting stuff, for sure, as arguments are presented for how oral versus written languages change how we think, as well as how we relate. In preparing for this seminar, I’ve made notes about the philosophies of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Saussure, and Socrates, as Abram presents them. This excerpt was hard to get through because it’s rather academic in tone, and lacked context, starting in the middle as it did–except actually, it starts with chapter 2, on page 31. Maybe I needed whatever introduction Abram originally included. At any rate, I trust in Mesha to lead us through.

The rest of her packet looked up quite a bit. A lovely lyric piece by Susan Brind Morrow; a somewhat academic, impassioned piece on “The Language of African Literature” by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; some extraordinary stories by Ann Pancake, a West Virginia writer who I (shamefully) have still not read outside of assigned excerpts like this one. (From her astonishing “Wappatomaka” comes the title of Mesha’s seminar, “hishing in the riffle.”) Anne Carson’s essays and poetry weirded out on me a little. I think I can remember having trouble with her before. And finally, Raymond Queneau’s exercises in style, which were interesting and, mercifully at the end of this long packet, easy to take in. Wait no, one final piece by Georges Perec, but my brain was too tired for this absurdism. Again, I trust in Mesha, and look forward to her illumination of this wild collection.

Matt Randal O’Wain‘s radio essay assignments were a change. I listen to podcasts when I can (having put audiobooks on hold pretty much for the duration of this MFA program, as my brain can only hold so much), so this was friendly. I appreciated being able to “read” for school while I cleaned the house and cooked and stuff. And six of the seven assigned radio essays I found very enjoyable. In fact, I often forgot to look for craft, finding myself so involved in the stories presented by (for example) This American Life‘s “Unconditional Love,” or Howard Dully’s “My Lobotomy.” I’m really excited about what this seminar has to offer.

Next Jessie van Eerden‘s assigned readings in the epistolary form, which began gently with one I’ve read before, Jane McCafferty’s “Thank You for the Music,” which is lovely. Actually, every item in this packet was lovely, although naturally my comprehension broke down with the poetry midway through (sigh). I didn’t even break stride with the optional reading by Alice Munro, and I recommend that piece (“Carried Away”) as much as any in the packet. Thank you, Jessie, for such a transcendent, and easy to read, experience.

She also assigned some questions to consider while reading and a writing assignment too, though, and I found myself out of practice. But that was probably the point: good to stretch those muscles again, as I head off to school.

I’m going to break this terribly long post here, and continue next week with the rest of the assigned readings. By then I’ll be home from residency, but not yet recovered! so it’ll have to hold you over. Stay tuned for another wide-ranging collection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art, and sundry. Happy weekend, friends.

wrapping up semester three

I am now on a break* of sorts between semesters three and four of my MFA program, meaning that I will graduate in January**, if all goes well with my thesis this fall. I thought I’d let you all in on how the last six months have gone, school-wise.

Third semester in WVWC’s program is critical essay (CE) semester. This means that on top of the usual creative output (which can be somewhat reduced, but ideally will not be), the students writes a 20-25 page essay on the topic of her choosing, studying a few central works. Instead of the usual output of fifteen craft annotations or craft essays in semesters one and two, only four annotations are due, followed by the critical essay itself; ideally those four annotations serve the essay, as they did for me. Anybody nerdy enough to want to learn more about these products (annotations, CE) are invited to peruse the MFA student’s handbook.

I had two ideas for my CE topic heading into last winter’s residency, and was quickly convinced in discussions there to write about objects, stuff, or things in the works I admire. Two of my early annotations covered two of my CE’s central texts: Terry Tempest Williams’s Pieces of White Shell and Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon. (Are you sick of hearing about those two books yet? I’m not.) The other two, still on-topic, covered a couple of Guy Clark songs (“Stuff That Works” and “The Randall Knife”), and Cutter Wood’s Love and Death in the Sunshine State, respectively. The latter did not make the CE, but Guy Clark made a few cameos, and my final central text was Scott Russell Sanders’s work in two essays, “The Inheritance of Tools” and “Buckeye,” from his collection Earth Works. My critical essay is titled “Yucca, Lemon, Buckeye: The Strangeness and Singularity of Things.”

I am moderately proud of it, and glad it’s over. I do feel the benefits of studying so closely one craft aspect I admire; but it was also a rather awkward adjustment for me. This work felt more like “school” than anything I’ve done in this MFA program. Getting back to a slightly more academic style was like slipping back into a comfortable groove, in that it’s something I’ve done before and feel competent with; doing creative work, for the first time in my life, just recently, had been a real challenge, and not always a happy one, but I missed it when I slipped back into that groove. I hope that makes some kind of sense.

I did keep up the creative work, more or less; I think I had one writing packet that was light on page count, which was also true in my second semester (I believe I buried Katie Fallon, in semester one, with the maximum allowable page count throughout). And now I’m very excited about heading into semester four, when I’ll write my thesis–or rather (I hope) edit and revise heavily and also do some connective-tissue writing to build a thesis out of the last few semesters’ work.

I had my best semester of reading yet, and had a wonderful rapport with my advisor, Jeremy B. Jones (author of Bearwallow). His comments on both my critical and my creative writing this semester always felt incisive, productive, and specifically geared at my own needs as a writer: personalized, and with a fine understanding of what I am and what I’m up to. I felt very lucky. He also recommended just the right books for me to read. (Look for a post on Friday about my favorite books of the first half of 2018.)

Looking back, then, it was a good semester for me as a writing student. It didn’t always feel that way in the moment! If nothing else, I have the angst of a creative writer down, I think.

I’ll probably be writing soon about the readings I’m doing for residency. It goes by so fast, and now that I’m more or less three-quarters of the way through this program, I’m a bit panicked at the idea of it ending, even as it looks like a relief, too. I’m glad to have written this post so I can remember the satisfaction of semester three, and the critical essay, feeling like accomplishments along the way.

Program director Jessie van Eerden continues to impress me with her promptness, combined professionalism and warmth, and enormous wisdom and talent. Jeremy Jones was a special gift to me this semester. My classmate Delaney McLemore, who will be graduating** this summer, has been a friend throughout, but this semester provided substantial support along the way. (I’m happy for her to be graduating, but I will miss her terribly!) It’s been grand, y’all.

Onward to West Virginia in July!



*Breaks are nearly a fallacy: as soon as my semester portfolio is due, it’s time to start working on my workshop sample for next residency; and almost as soon as my workshop sample is in, I get back other people’s workshop samples to read and comment on, as well as my reading assignments for residency, which number in the hundreds of pages. But technically, break.

**While there is a graduation ceremony at residency, the degree is not officially conferred until the college’s next graduation date, which in my case is May 2019. For that matter, following the January residency where I “graduate” and teach a seminar to my peers, I have something like six weeks to keep working on my thesis before its final-final due date in mid-February or so. January will be a major milestone, but there will be later milestones before the MFA is truly done. And I’ll be learning as a writer forever (hopefully). The process is ongoing, and then goes on.

residency readings, part I

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


I posted last month about the readings (etc.) I’d be doing to prepare for this upcoming semester and residency. As I worked my way through the assignments, I wanted to share a few highlights and my general impressions. Again, you can take a look at the readings and seminar descriptions here.

In order of appearance, and therefore the order in which I read and viewed them:

Because of my longstanding problem with poetry, the packet assigned for Diane Gilliam’s seminar on “reading as a writer” was fairly mysterious to me, though not unenjoyable–I just didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. Maybe I’m too much a control freak for poetry. Because the contents of her packet weren’t spelled out at the link above, I’ll just list the poets here. It included works by Louise McNeill, T’ai Freedom Ford, Theodore Roethke, *William Stafford, *Ross Gay, Eavan Boland (author of “The Black Lace Fan” that I remember studying in high school), Li-Young Lee, *Lauren Rusk, W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, *Audre Lorde, Charles Simic, and *Eleanor Wilner. (My favorite poems were by the *asterisked names.)

Jessie‘s assigned readings for “writing in the gaps” included an excerpt from Housekeeping (so at least I was a little familiar, if also ambivalent); a craft essay I really enjoyed by Andrea Barrett that had plenty of personal essay to it as well; and, among other things, Albert Goldbarth’s essay “Fuller.” That last was a reread, and I got so much more out of it this time. Jessie is smart, and deep, and I have no illusions that I am grasping the point of her seminar yet.

Next was Katie Fallon’s packet, which I loved and swooned over, although it was indeed hard emotional stuff. It begins with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” a poem I felt I got. Brian Doyle’s “Leap” was a reread but an always-welcome one. “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer resonated with me in many ways, especially when he meditated on the distances we feel from tragedies close to home, and the different ways we mourn. And though I loved everything in between, the final piece, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always stands out. I’ve read it a number of times now, though I haven’t written much about it. I had such a wild time with it again on this reading that I had to amend my “best of the year” post to put it at the very top. I felt close to Katie as I read this packet, too, knowing her as my first semester’s advisor, and knowing from reading her Cerulean Blues of her own experience with trauma. I am very interested in her seminar on “writing personal responses to public violence,” and I imagine that teaching it will cost her something, but I also know she has a lot to teach.

Jacinda Townsend’s packet of magical realism blew my mind. I guess I should be reading more of this stuff?! I loved Byatt’s “A Stone Woman,” and then the next and the next and the next. This was not the first enjoyable reading of the residency assignments, but it was the first time I lost myself. Go find these stories immediately! Wow. I’m really looking forward to this seminar.


That’s all for now–this began as a single really long post but I’ve taken pity on you. Come back on Friday to read about the rest of my assigned readings for this residency period. Thanks for sticking around!

best of 2017: year’s end

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond.


My year-in-review post will be up next week, as usual. But first, also as usual, I want to share the list of my favorite things I read this year.

Not as usual: none were audiobooks, because I read no audiobooks this year. Few of these are new releases (they are marked with an asterisk*).

I gave a single rating of 10, late in the game, to an essay I’ve read over and over, and it keeps getting better every time. I still have not written about this essay. I still think you should go into it blind.

  • “The Fourth State of Matter,” Jo Ann Beard – nonfiction

I’ve refrained from going back and changing any ratings that I gave at the time; but I have split the books that I rated 9 into two groups, as I judge them now. This list is overwhelmingly nonfiction, since that is most of what I’ve been reading this year.

So. The top three which received ratings of 9, are:

The rest of my 9-ratings, all wonderful reads:

I gave plenty of 8s–too many, perhaps–and I’ve gone through and compiled you a slightly shorter list of my favorites from those books.

I hope this lengthy list gives you some good ideas for your own reading! What are some of the best books you’ve read this year?

Come back next week to see a further breakdown of my reading habits in 2017, what’s changed and what’s a surprise. Happy holidays and happy reading, friends.

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