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Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir,  by Rebecca Solnit.

February 1, 2020

Recollections of my Non-Existence
Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir,  by Rebecca Solnit. Viking/Penguin, 2020

5 stars

Forthcoming: March 10, 2020.

A favorite writer’s account of how she learned to write, found her voice, and realized that writing is a form of activism and the creation a better world.

Rebecca Solnit is a San Francisco-based journalist who regularly writes on social, political and cultural issues in major American publications.  She has also published 15 books on topics ranging from the landscape, history, and culture of the American west, Native land claims, and feminism.  She grew up in California and graduated from San Francisco State College and UC-Berkley.  In her new book, her private story and the public culture are smoothly blended.  We learn what she thinks and feels, but not about her childhood or love life.  Of the pundits on the American horizons, Solnit is among my favorites for her insights, her critique of our culture, and the sharp bite of her words.  She is one of the few authors who can write what I have been thinking but not been able to articulate for myself.  

As she indicates in the title of this book, Solnit focuses her memoir of how she discovered and cultivated her voice.   In telling her own story she reveals her understanding of herself and of what it means to write for a public audience.  I only wish that other writers shared her understanding of what it means to write and that I might tell my own story this way.  In her writing, the personal is truly made political.

Unlike many memoirists, Solnit writes little about her childhood or love life.  She begins her account with her move to San Francisco to attend college.   She relates the places she lived, attended college and grad school, and held her first jobs.  In each of these, she identifies what she learned about writing and about herself. Simultaneously she analyses how our society silences women, especially how the violence against women leaves us afraid to be heard.  The fears and real dangers of urban life for women, especially those are young and alone, are sharply related.  Being silenced is both “in our heads” and all too real concrete reality.

Gradually Solnit moves into a full time writing career and becomes involved a various activist groups through the American west. She tells us where she went and the friends she made who influenced whom she has become.  In these chapters, she continues to write of herself and of people, cultures and issues that engaged her.  As she did this work, she gradually realized the importance of using words and language to re-structure our society, something she continues to do regularly in her essays and articles.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, often recognizing myself in it.  More importantly, Solnit helped me conceptualize what it means to be a writer/activist and follow her example despite my age.  I highly recommend this book to others.  Whether or not readers share her views, her writing is essential to understanding the world we live in.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 19, 2020 4:31 pm

    Love her work, another to add to the list.

  2. March 22, 2020 1:11 pm


    After your comments, I checked out your sites and signed up. I wish I could come to your wonderful and get both a message and coaching. Thanks for connecting.

    Knowing more about you, I wanted to say more about Solnit. I really liked her approach to writing a “personal narrative.” Little about childhood and romantic loves (post-Freudian, I guess). I am a retired historian and my own narrative combines both a public and a private story. So does hers but more deliberately. She uses her own experience as a prism for looking at society around here. I loved what she acheived.

    I am curious about what Gornick says about Smedley. I enjoyed her book, but found it less interesting as autobiography/memoir. She seemed to have very little introspective and more writing for a public audience telling them about the poor whom they ignored and dehumanized. A valid goal, of course, but not as innovative as Solnit.

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