In her new book, “The Faraway Nearby,” San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit contemplates the nature of storytelling and empathy. The author of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” and “Wanderlust” reflects on her mother’s Alzheimer’s, the power of storytelling, and how our stories shape us.


By Rebecca Solnit

1. Apricots

What's your story? It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller's art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you've only read about, or the one next to you in bed?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we've been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.

In The Thousand and One Nights, known in English as The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade tells stories in order to keep the sultan in suspense from night to night so he will not kill her. The backstory is that the sultan caught his queen in the embrace of a slave and decided to sleep with a virgin every night and slay her every morning so that he could not be cuckolded again. Scheherazade volunteered to try to end the massacre and did so by telling him stories that carried over from one night to the next for nights that stretched into years.

She spun stories around him that kept him in a cocoon of anticipation from which he eventually emerged a less murderous man. In the course of all this telling she bore three sons and delivered a labyrinth of stories within stories, stories of desire and deception and magic, of transformation and testing, stories in which the action in one freezes as another storyteller opens his mouth, pregnant stories, stories to stop death.

We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller. Those ex-virgins who died were inside the sultan's story; Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out.

Sometimes the key arrives long before the lock. Sometimes a story falls in your lap. Once about a hundred pounds of apricots fell into mine. They came in three big boxes, and to keep them from crushing one another under their weight or from rotting in close quarters, I spread them out on a sheet on the plank floor of my bedroom. There they presided for some days, a story waiting to be told, a riddle to be solved, and a harvest to be processed. They were an impressive sight, a mountain of apricots in every stage from hard and green to soft and browning, though most of them were that range of shades we call apricot: pale orange with blushes of rose and yellow-gold zones, upholstered in a fine velvet, not as fuzzy as peaches, not as smooth as plums. The ripe ones had the faint sweet perfume particular to that fruit.

I had expected them to look like abundance itself and they looked instead like anxiety, because every time I came back there was another rotten one or two or three or dozen to cull, and so I fell to inspecting the pile every time I passed by instead of admiring it. The reasons why I came to have a heap of apricots on my bedroom floor are complicated. They came from my mother's tree, from the home she no longer lived in, in the summer when a new round of trouble began.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit. Copyright © 2013 by Rebecca Solnit.

Rebecca Solnit, essayist and author of "The Faraway Nearby," "Wanderlust: A History of Walking," "A Field Guide to Getting Lost," and "A Paradise Built in Hell"

  • Bob Fry

    It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone so self-absorbed on KQED Forum.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    RE Google, you left out paying NO taxes! Michael will recall the dis- ingenuousness of Eric Schmidt a couple of months ago saying we CHOSE the tax laws through who we elected.
    Here is on Forum’s show in May:

  • Lauren

    I’m appalled at this woman’s ignorance and willingness to generalize about the people at Google. Not everyone is so young and so rich, and I’ve never met a more worldly group of people than those at Google.

    • Robert Thomas

      Lauren, from my experience I wouldn’t go so far as “worldly”.

    • Carter

      I’ve interviewed at Google a couple times and I have yet to meet a genius there.

  • Chris OConnell

    The issue of journalism came up earlier and how they are supposed to be objective. Of course, this is about as feasible as saying journalists are NOT supposed to breathe. But of course this issue has been in the news lately, highlighted by the Glenn Greenwald/David Gregory interaction.

    Greenwald was on Fox & Friends yesterday and the funniest, most amazing and ironic segment ensued. A Fox “legal analyst” who spewed a lot of misinformation was on to talk about Greenwald and Advocacy Journalism. On FOX!!! With no apparent self-awareness of what Fox News is.

  • Fay Nissenbaum

    Please do not pussyfoot about criticizing President Obama. You mentioned Bush policies post-911 – well, Obama has not only continued bush policies but extended them. This is a disconnect from knee-jerk love of Obama as if he offers a change from practices of the past…

  • Robert Thomas

    Ms. Solnit’s flippant comment about Silicon Valley was racist and inaccurate. Sadly, she hasn’t the wit to recognize this nor the character to regret it. She’s an intelligent person, in thrall to her own ego.

  • Guffie

    wow, it looks like the tech zealots are out in full force. just because you work at a tech company doesn’t mean you can’t examine the industry critically, and just because you point out some seriously troubling critiques of a company doesn’t mean you’re some anti-tech luddite. ms. solnit is not the only critical thinker who finds silicon valley’s dominance disturbing (see: morozov, evgeny or lanier, jaron). she has fought for the working class her entire career and they need her voice more than ever.

    • Robert Thomas

      Guffie, I’m an old white guy who’s been a working electrical engineer in the Santa Clara valley for thirty-five years. I can tell you, I have all kinds of criticisms of our industry’s “culture”, in concert with some of those Ms. Solnit mentioned as well as plenty of others. But as an individual contributor during these decades, being drown in a sea of “rich young white guys” has never been a danger I’ve faced. There’s no doubt that the western world of commerce has in general been kind to white males in founding and leadership roles. If there’s been an industry more amenable to the ambitions of non-white leadership, I’m unaware of it.

      • Guffie

        i’m confused as to what your point is? that we shouldn’t criticize silicon valley for being overwhelmingly white because every other industry is? (i’m not being snarky, by the way. i’ll fully admit that i’m a little slow :)).

        • Robert Thomas

          If it were true that Silicon Valley (by which I mean the concentration of technology-based businesses located in the south bay) employed a workforce that was “overwhelmingly white”, I agree that that alone wouldn’t be a reason for singling out our industry for criticism in this way; in fact, however, the assertion isn’t even factual. Our workforce isn’t “overwhelmingly white”. I agree that executive leadership in our industry is predominately both white and male. The second point I attempted, risking damnation by faint praise, was that in relative terms, our industry is as hospitable to leading individuals of other than white European ethnicity as can be found anywhere.

      • Carter

        @Robert, in the world of software. I’ve drowned in the “sea of young non-rich white guys” and I’m presently in a sea of Indians.

        • Robert Thomas

          Carter, when I started working in Sunnyvale in the later 1970s I think that I couldn’t claim that it was not an “overwhelmingly white” milieu. Not exclusively white, but subjectively, it was “overwhelmingly” so. By the mid 1980s on the other hand, the number of my South Asian and East Asian co-workers was nearing parity with my ethnically European co-workers. If white males were still a majority of my coworkers, I don’t think I could any longer have described their ethnic prominence as “overwhelming”.

          I understand that I’m not offering statistical data here. I’m relying on my personal experience which is inescapably anecdotal. Your experience could be inexplicably contrary to mine. But I work for a prominent provider of electronic equipment (not consumer products) that employs over 10,000 people. I would say without question that among the HW and SW development and operations co-workers I have, not only those employed with me but those of our vendors and those of our customers with whom I have collaborated, that ethnically European individual contributors (and project managers too) are now in a not-uncomfortable minority.

          • Carter

            The sea of non-rich white guys that I worked in was out of state, but the sea of Indians was here. Basically the Indians are cheap in some cases, but if you look at the LCA database you’ll see they can also be just as expensive as Americans. They’re employed to help transition the work to overseas.

          • Robert Thomas

            I take your points. But I don’t think you’re challenging my assertion about the ethnic profile of the SV workforce. It’s not, by any stretch of the notion, “overwhelmingly white”.

          • Carter

            I agree. During the dot-com boom it was, but when that went bust, lots of people left in the middle of the night to head back to the Midwest, leaving apartment managers pulling out their hair.

            After that, there was a huge influx of non-whites while remaining whites were told to train their Indian replacements.

    • Erin Hoffman

      On the upside, it’s hard to imagine a more effective illustration of exactly the entitled and insulated attitudes she’s talking about than the content of some of these comments.

      • Robert Thomas

        In what way? Illustrated, where?

      • Carter

        The Valley is:

        1 part Success theatre
        1 part Competence theatre
        2 parts Self-hollowing greed

        • Robert Thomas

          Carter, this seems a little stark. What an unsatisfying experience you must have had.

          • Carter

            With 25 year-olds who are not at all circumspect making over $100k greed and cut-throat competition are to be expected. Since the Dot Com boom, it’s only gotten worse. I frequently in the computer biz find myself thinking, OMG I really am working with idiots. They have knowledge, but zero wisdom.

          • Robert Thomas

            Oh, well. Look, I’m a fifty-plus-year-old-guy in my business who used to be an eighteen-plus-year-old-guy in my business. I’ve been the source of a LOT of arrogant hoo-ha in that time and a witness to plenty more of it from others. A close co-worker from my past, about twenty years old at the time, couldn’t believe how stupid the idiots he’d been working with in Albuquerque were in 1976. He was glad he’d dumped them. They were Gates & Allen (our mutual employer at the time [not MITS, by the way] had come up with $50k for them to develop a non-exclusive-use assembler for an 8080-based development system … STORIES! I got a million of ’em).

            With respect to social issues and attitudes, I’ve known countless (generally, youthful) engineers who were confident that the world’s major problems would yield to their superior intellects between noon and tea-time, if only it were in their power (a far, FAR more common opinion among software engineers than among hardware engineers, in my experience; maybe I’m biased). Despite this, I can’t blame young people for being simultaneously callow and valued for their skills.

          • Carter

            Most software people think they can change the world– but most are disconnected from the world and from people, so how would they even know?

  • zorgparts

    Look I’m happy you work in LEED certified buildings, ride around on cute bikes, can choose from a dozen world cuisines and then zoom by in a big unmarked wifi bus. But don’t pretend everybody in the Bay Area has that same deal or that your corporation is pulling its weight for the larger societal good.

    • Robert Thomas

      zorgparts, who pretends any of this?

  • Tyranipocrit

    Rebecca Solnit is the clearest most honest person I have ever heard on mainstream media. She has direct honest and true responses to all the nonsense. I wish she said more about the absurd and criminal oppression, suppression, tyranny, and rape by Monsanto on organic farmers, consumers and the environment.

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