Still reading Barry Lopez

Stories…offer patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives…As long as it took for me to see that a writer’s voice had to grow out of his own knowledge and desire, that it could not rise legitimately out of the privilege of race or gender or social rank, so did it take time to grasp the depth of cruelty inflicted upon all of us the moment voices are silenced, when for prejudicial reasons people are told their stories are not valuable, not useful.                    Barry Lopez

About This Life book coverIn the introduction to his essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez tells of meeting a man on a plane who asked what words of advice he could pass on to his teen-age daughter, who wanted to be a writer. This is what Lopez said:

She must read, and her choices should be whatever she is drawn to.

She should read the classics, too, but she’ll have to work harder to find stories of heroism, love, and our noblest values that are written by women.

Second, she must “become someone” and “speak to us from within those beliefs.”

Third, he advised that she “separate herself from the familiar.” After exploring other places and meeting a diversity of people, she`ll know why she loves the familiar and share this knowledge through her writing.

Early on, Lopez felt he was noticed, accepted, and rewarded as a writer in part because he was white, male, privileged and well educated. If you read his work, you’ll find he is keenly sensitive to the fact that many voices haven’t been heard because they are different or not within traditional circles of power. He thrives on traveling to the far corners of the earth and seeking these people out –  artists, artisans, farmers, naturalists, explorers who live close to the land, indigenous peoples, and others.

I was mesmerized by an essay in About This Life, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire.”  An Oregon potter and builder of a unique anagama kiln invites clay artists from around the world to fire their work. Jack doesn’t care about marketing or commercial success; he’s totally immersed in the process of making pottery out of materials from nature. Every three or four months, up to twenty artists bring their work to be fired in the Dragon Kiln.  Families, friends, even pets tag along. The firing goes around the clock for several days. Building the tremendous fire that heats the kiln is an art in and of itself. Different kinds of wood – black locust, maple, cherry, Lombardy poplar, red cedar – make different kinds of fires, and keeping the fire properly stoked is a community effort of like-minded artists who put aside their egos for the benefit of the group.

Lopez says you must become someone to write. I think he would agree the kiln designer and the clay artists are “becoming” through their life’s work, just as their clay pieces are forged in the fire. It’s a process that never ends. Even the clay pot continues to change, subtly, after the firing.

Crow and Weasel book coverOver and over, Lopez celebrates journeys into the unknown, strangers who become friends, coming home again, and the writing of the story. You see this in About This Life and in his fable, Crow and Weasel.

Recently, Lopez published a revelatory personal essay that has received a lot of attention, “Sliver of Sky,”  in Harper’s Magazine, about a period of sexual abuse he endured as a child. That Lopez waited until his seventies to write about this suggests how deeply confounding and wounding it was. The trauma and years of silence may explain in part Lopez’s empathy and compassion for others who were silenced for one reason or another. And no doubt it has contributed to his sense of mission as a writer.

I’ve written about years of being silent and feeling silenced by others because of my mother’s mental illness. I think that is partly why I didn’t make the commitment to becoming a writer when I was younger. How can you mature as a human being and as a writer when you can’t work with the very material that is woven into your identity?

If we’re silenced, we’re blocked. We don’t become our fullest selves. Diminished in what we are able to offer the world, the world will be diminished, too. It is in our bests interests to see that no one among us is silenced.

So I find reading Lopez to be a rare and important form of encouragement.

In an interview with Bill Moyers, Lopez says he’s viewed as a nature writer but, actually, he is writing about humanity.

“Every story is an act of trust between a writer and a reader; each story, in the end, is social. Whatever a writer sets down can harm or help the community of which he or she is a part.”

Quotes from: About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory, Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, New York: 1998.

Reading Barry Lopez, gathering words

The role of the artist, in part, is to develop the conversations, the stories, the drawings, the films, the music—the expressions of awe and wonder and mystery—that remind us, especially in our worst times, of what is still possible, of what we haven’t yet imagined. Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams book coverWhen I began this blog I chose for my tagline a quote by Barry Lopez about stories because it rang true for me. But I’d never actually read any of Lopez’s books. So I began with Arctic Dreams, followed by About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory.

If you want to be an armchair traveler of the world, if you love nature, if you crave being transported to another time and place by extraordinary writing, you must read Barry Lopez. Arctic Dreams has some of the most dazzling and poetic passages about the natural world you’ll ever encounter.

“The aurora borealis, pale gossamer curtains of light.”

“The mother-of-pearl iridescence of the sun’s or moon’s corona in clouds.”

“The outcry of birds, the bullet-whirr of their passing wings, the splashing of water, is, like the falling light, unending.”

You will find uncommon truths, beautifully expressed. Here is Lopez on the great Arctic explorers of the past: “The day after a little trouble in the ice it is possible to imagine, if but imperfectly, the sort of reach some of these men made into the unknown, day after day.” 

“I think we can hardly reconstruct the terror of it, the single-minded belief in something beyond the self.”

“Inescapable hardship transcended by a desire of spiritual elevation, or the desire to understand, to comprehend what lay in darkness.”

“What dreams there must have been that were never written down….that remained in the heart. The kind of dreams that give a whole life its bearing, what a person intends it should be, having seen those coasts.”

If you want to write, how can you move closer to this kind of mastery of language?

old dictionary

Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd ed., unabridged, 1944

When I was reading Lopez, I happened to make a happy discovery in my writing bible, Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor:  Lexicon Practice. Lexicon Practice involves looking up words you don`t know and words you want to know better, not in in a pocket dictionary or online, but in a mammoth 600,000-word dictionary, the kind you still see in some libraries.  (Long advises writers to search online for such a dictionary, commonly published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They aren’t cheap, but they are a wise investment.) You copy all of the definitions of a word in a notebook. These old dictionaries have detailed diagrams and illustrations, and occasionally I copy them as well.

I write down the word in its language of origin, too. If it has a Latin, Italian or Spanish root, I can brush up on my foreign language vocabulary. Long instructs you to also write out the sentence where you found the word and make up a sentence of your own, preferably a sentence you can use in a piece of writing you’re working on. You can choose a lexicon theme based on the work you are doing at the moment. Since I’m writing a memoir, for example, I have a lexicon with words commonly used in the 1960s – products, types of clothing, etc.

Long believes in Lexicon Practice. Otherwise, our writing derives from the uninspired language of generic, overused words and phrases we find in newspapers, magazines, advertising, and social media. As a teacher of writing, Long can tell immediately when a writer does not do a form of Lexicon Practice. She mentions Lopez as the kind of master writer we can emulate. He uses words with Old English and Old German roots, she says, and “…he favors concrete words…that can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted, or heard. For Lopez, language is a musical instrument…”

Now, Lexicon Practice is a geeky, writerly thing, but it appeals to me. I can certainly stand to expand my vocabulary, and I find it an especially relaxing pastime in front of a fire on a cold winter`s night. This kind of practice slows you down, teaches you to choose words with care. If you want to write rich, compelling fiction or nonfiction, you need to be in love with words in this way, or allow yourself to fall in love with them by doing work of this nature.

Culling words from Arctic Dreams was an inspiring way to for me to establish the habit of Lexicon Work. A variety of birds populate the first pages of my first lexicon: plover, whimbrel, curlew. There are many boats and nautical references: pinnace, tender, portolano chart.  Geographical terms, too: archipelago, scree, promontory.  Definitions and drawings(As I write this, my word processor does not recognize a few of these uncommon words and highlights them as misspellings.)

Long advises writers to compose word lists, too. Her examples: every possible synonym for blue (sapphire, smalt, cobalt, woad) and all the parts of a fiddle (peg box, side rib, bridge, button). You can work according to a theme. Chairs and chair parts. Types of roofs. Clothes for people who love the outdoors. Get an L.L. Bean catalog and find words like cargo pants, fleece, sun-washed, twill, seersucker, Mary Janes, wellies.

I found that keeping a lexicon is a good excuse to buy one of those expensive, fancy journals I love. Mine has a silvered filigree cover designed in Germany around 1800.

Currently, I’m gathering words from About This Life.

In my next post, more about Lopez and his themes. In the meantime, if you want to be uplifted, if you need encouragement in your life’s work, listen to a few minutes of this conversation between Barry Lopez and Bill Moyers.

Have you discovered any unusual words lately that you especially like? Leave them in the comments in my left sidebar.

Quotes:

On Writing: Statements of Purpose at http://www.barrylopez.com.

Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez, Vintage Books, New York: 1986.

The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Priscilla Long, Wallingford Press, Seattle: 2010.

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