IN THE AGE OF GPS and Google Maps, traveling without a personal navigation system is almost passé. Pity those rare sojourners who choose to move toward uncertain destinations without the help of technology. They risk getting lost and wasting time, both of which I hate to do. On my way to meet the writer Lynn Darling at a coffee shop in Manhattan, I therefore predictably glided along with the pulsing blue dot on my phone. Yet by the end of our conversation, she’d convinced me that it’s perfectly acceptable — and perhaps even advisable — to lose my way now and then.
Darling, a former Washington Post reporter and seasoned magazine writer, makes a strong case for the value of both losing and finding our way in Out of the Woods, her new memoir. In hopes of reorienting her life after her daughter left for college, she traded the New York apartment she occupied for 23 years for a house at the end of a dirt road in the woods of rural Vermont. But instead of finding instant serenity, she floundered like the fish out of water she was. It was not until a cancer diagnosis (which she chronicles with searing intimacy) shifted her perspective that she began to find new direction.
The fearlessness with which Darling navigated the unknown territory in the woods behind her home — not to mention a new phase of her life — absolutely intrigued me. Darling even gives readers a term for it: Wayfinding. It’s what experts in the field of direction call relying on the landscape, and oneself, to define the correct path. It’s different than “way keeping,” a simple matter of following the signposts (or the blue dot) down a predetermined path. As Darling puts it in her poignant memoir: “If I were to make my own way in the country of the old, I needed to trust myself, and to do that, it seemed essential that I pare away all that was inauthentic from that mysterious being, my essential self.”
It was difficult to picture Darling, who came off as sophisticated and grounded during our interview, feeling disoriented in her life: Darling spoke to me, with insight and wit, about being stripped of the roles that long defined her, toeing the line between self-reflection and self-pity, and learning to orient her own map. I left her hoping her wisdom would rub off.
Writers in New York tend to either romanticize leaving the big city for the solitude of the country, or to consider the idea completely insane. When you left Manhattan for rural Vermont, did you know what you were getting into?
Looking back, I realize, I went without much of a plan. As I say in the book, I’d sort of fallen out of my own map. My life was about to take a radical turn. I hadn’t thought it was going to make a big difference, but it became a crossroads. My husband had been dead a long time and my daughter was about to go to college, and I began to realize that I’d never really crafted a life here [in New York] that didn’t revolve around her and my work. I was at an age — it’s not that I didn’t have friends, I had a community, but I wasn’t that connected to anything. Between Zoe, and taking care of her and working at the same time, I’d had this very full life, but once you took those things away, the emptiness started showing up.
I had long wanted to move to the country, and I had long wanted to get a sense of direction. It didn’t seem like a big deal to move to Vermont and do both. I was working on a book — not this book. It was going to be a nerdy cultural exploration about all this stuff I found out about direction, like why north was at the top of the map and how that didn’t happen until the Reformation, why some people found certain directions holy and others sinister. But none of it was in first person. And I also had this kind of loopy fantasy, which was that I was going to be this noble writer alone in the woods, a sort of anchorite with her hound at her feet staring into the fire as I thought creative thoughts. I had this infantile thought of the house as my fortress of solitude against the next phase of life.
You nicknamed the house you bought in Vermont “Castle Dismal” because it turned out to be anything but the fortress or sanctuary you’d hoped for. The house is such a character in your memoir. Did you feel like you succeeded in creating solitude there?
Not at all. The sanctuary ended up being the woods. It was partly through the catalyst of having cancer, but the woods taught me about finding your way in the real world and in art, about paying attention to what’s around you. Not what you think is there — your mental map — but what’s really there. I just started taking a more jaundiced eye to my own fantasies, and my own tendency to dramatize. I became a little bit more ruefully aware of how much I didn’t know, and how much there is to find out.
So what prompted you to leave the city was your daughter’s high school graduation, but it sounds like you almost craved a crossroads. It gave you an excuse to make a change.
I think any crossroads you come to, no matter what age you are, is a good time to try and figure out why you do what you do, and why you think how you think. I thought I was leaving to live forever in Vermont and be this new person. I had this sort of fantasy of never needing anyone and just being completely content on my own. I needed to come up against myself and figure out what was real and what wasn’t. I would never have gone if I knew how much fear I’d have to face, how much learning I had to do. Although I don’t know for sure — as a young woman I always liked getting lost and having adventures.
You remind me of an essay by Dani Shapiro that I read the other day about memoir writing, particularly the part where she wrote about picking the right moments to write about —
I have to read it.
Well, she spoke to a lot of the fears that writers have, or at least ones that I’ve had. She said something like, the moment itself you pick to write about is the size of a pin, but once you start exploring it, it becomes oceanic. Was that true for you?
Yes, I think that’s really well put. What people don’t realize is that what a memoirist does is what they do, too. You take a moment and you create a story that makes it hold together. You’re not creating a character as in fiction, but you’re distilling who you are and all that’s complicated into the one part that you’re exploring in the book. Any memoir that tried to present a whole personality would end up looking like a pointillist abstract painting. There would be just dots of color everywhere. It wouldn’t have a shape.
That’s such a great image. But it’s ironic that you’re distilling to get closer to some kind of truth that can feel more authentic than a big jumble. It’s back to your map.
Yes, to make sense of the world, or at least your own world. We all have these mental maps, or else we’d go nuts. But we do need to reexamine them. I think one of the great liberating things about getting older is you realize it’s not all about you. We’re all pretty self-obsessed at the start. It’s, “I’m not lost, this tree is in the wrong place.”
So true. And there’s that whole stereotype of writers being self-absorbed: a lot of people criticize memoir in general as a self-indulgent genre. I’ve read memoirs that feel very navel-gazing, but then there are so many that break open my own experiences. Yet there is still this idea that it’s the genre that is “all about me.”
That’s the point, it is and it isn’t. I mean, I love Dani’s stuff, I love Mary Karr. I didn’t have a life like either of these women, but the things they talk about are things we all think about. You do find universality in memoirs, if they’re good. If they’re just whiny little protest songs, then no. But even in a memoir about extraordinary circumstances, like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, you’re watching one individual cope with this overwhelming world, so you learn about personal courage.
Did you worry about writing for an audience as you went along?
With memoir writing you want the book to have its own head a little bit, but you also want to make sure you’re in control of the voice. Otherwise you’re going to get stuck inside your own head, which is a very boring place to be.
How did you come up with the structure for the book? Those historical anecdotes and facts about direction that you researched for the original project are so seamlessly woven into your narrative about the woods.
I didn’t know what I was writing till I was actually writing. The shape of it was almost accidental. I started out to write a straightforward book about direction, yes. But when I got cancer, the writing stopped. I had an extraordinary editor, and she gave me some time. I worried for a long time I couldn’t write the book. But it kind of got written in the woods. I’d read something about the brain after chemo, and it suggested I wouldn’t remember much for a while, and to use a recorder to take notes. So I had my iPhone and a voice-activated recorder, and my dog and I would go into the woods for a couple hours a day, and I’d just talk into it. The entries were everything from “buy toothpaste” to “call so-and-so” to “oh, I understand, I’m kind of bearing this way because it’s an easier path.” I would start babbling, then I’d go home and type everything up. I began to realize the book was there — I started seeing an arc.
Were there parts that you found particularly difficult to write?
I think what was difficult was letting the book decide for itself what it wanted to be. In terms of the actual writing, I can describe emotions just fine, but when it comes to certain technical things — anything to do with the science — I was sometimes flummoxed.
But there were other parts that must have been difficult, too — where you’re writing about chemo and radiation, sitting on the table in your gown, and how humbling and at times ashamed you felt.
That was hard. Hard because you want to write so people relate to you without it being all about self-pity or regret. But I knew my editor would let me know if I’d gone overboard. I overpack as a traveler, and I overpack as a writer too. It’s kind of like what Coco Chanel tells you about getting dressed: get all dressed up, look in the mirror, and take one thing off.
This is your second memoir, and it was sort of an accidental memoir —
Oh, I was determined never to use the first person pronoun again. I was adamant. But I think books — and I don’t mean to sound all magical and woo-woo — I think books have an idea of what they’re doing. With any writing, part of your subconscious is writing, too, and this book just decided to go in its own direction. I fought it for a while, and finally it was oh, what the hell. It was turning into what it was.
When you first went to Vermont, before you were diagnosed, you were struggling to sit down and work. But then things changed. Once you knew that this was the book, did you have any rituals or a system that helped you get the story out?
I had a deadline, and I just put myself on a word diet. By the time the sun was up over the trees I was writing, and the idea was I had to write 1,500 words before I could do anything else. Sometimes it was just 1,500, and sometimes it was more. I gave myself permission to write total crap, and a lot of it was. But that sort of did the trick. This book was fun to write. I’ve never said that about writing before. Writing is mostly sacrificing virgins and prostrating myself before the angry gods, you know. But this book was just me sitting on a sofa in front of a wood stove, almost as if I were writing a diary, really … I really like the book that I wrote this time, but when I started it I had no idea I had a book.
I guess that brings up the whole failure thing, which I’ve been wanting to ask you about. At the beginning, it’s almost as if you want to convince the reader what a failure you’ve been, but that’s not what it looks like from the outside.
As young people, we all have these great big hopes of success, and I think you start getting this inflated idea about what you ought to have done rather than what you did. All I could think of were the stories that hadn’t worked out, or the books I hadn’t written, or the chances I hadn’t taken. We all get lost in the past, and partly why I left New York is that I was locked up in it — I was still in love with a dead guy. That does cramp your style a bit. I hadn’t really let life be new. Then I started feeling like a failure because I thought I couldn’t stay in Vermont, and that’s when I thought: Oh, just shut up. Get over yourself.
(laughs) I liked that through writing, you were finally able to tell yourself a different story about your life. You also write about getting older. Did your thoughts about that change?
I wanted to approach getting older as a separate thing that was happening, and not as a surrender or a giving up. The books I’d read had made me less than optimistic about finding a mentor in this regard. Half the books made me think that older women had to be having sex like bunny rabbits or they’d turn into lifeless crones, and the other half just said you should get fat and plant herbs and bay at the moon. They were all cliché and cartoonish, and I wanted to figure it out for myself.
I loved the parts about learning to distinguish between neuroses and instinct. I haven’t quite figured that out yet.
Part of that is getting the tools. In the case of direction, it was the map and the compass. You have to look up every now and then and see where the sun is, what side of the mountain you’re on. So it’s the combination of bigger perspective, which I think comes from reading or meditating or whatever one does, finding people who are smarter also helps — I had people like that in Vermont — and just remembering how big the world is, and how little you are. Some people find that kind of scary, but I found that very liberating.