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
Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, 2020. You can read a brief, beautiful account of his passing by his wife, Debra Gwartney, on his website. Over the next months, his family will begin the work of restoring their home on the McKenzie River, which was burned in the 2020 wildfires.
During the next week I’ll be featuring some of my past posts about Barry. Here is one, which I wrote in 2013:
When 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, which won the National Book Award.
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 on 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?
As 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 a dictionary published in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. They aren’t cheap, but they are a wise investment.) Copy the definitions of a word in a notebook. These old dictionaries have detailed diagrams and illustrations, and occasionally I copy these 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 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 knows immediately when a writer doesn’t have a Lexicon Practice. She mentions Lopez as the kind of master writer we can emulate. He uses words with Old English and Old German roots, 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. 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 a 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. (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. (I haven’t kept up a lexicon practice as of 2020, but I do it from time to time for specific writing projects.)
I am now using the second edition of Pricilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, published in 2018 by the University of New Mexico Press. It has been updated with all new craft models and to reflect changes in the publishing industry.
If you want to be uplifted or if you would like encouragement in your life’s work, listen to a few minutes of this conversation between Barry Lopez and Bill Moyers.
Here is a moving and enlightening interview with Barry Lopez on Idaho Public Television from 2019. He talks about his latest book, Horizon, (which is a wonderful and urgent read!!!) and opens up about the impact of childhood sexual abuse on his life, and what he hoped to accomplish by finally writing about it in the New Yorker as an elder. Those of you writing memoir about traumatic events will find it helpful.
Here is a link to the McKenzie River Trust, which is devoted to conservation of the western Oregon region where Barry Lopez lived. Much of the river corridor was destroyed by the fall fires. If you wish, you can make a donation in memory of Barry Lopez.