Off the Beaten Path

“The letter’s authors informed us of the nation’s persisting need for democratic reform. Each of us was told of widespread irritation with our work, and the government’s desire to speak with us.”      Resistance, by Barry Lopez

This is a remarkable collection of short stories by Barry Lopez published in 2004, in the wake of 9/11 and the Patriot Act. If you’ve been following Books Can Save a Life, you know I’m a huge fan of Lopez. I read Resistance a couple of years ago and thought about it this week as the inauguration approached.

It’s hard to capture the essence of these nine singular and unusual stories–I don’t think there is a collection quite like it. If you want to read something off the beaten path, these stories are perfect. The characters are not your ordinary, everyday people.

If you are looking for courage, strength, and inspiration in difficult times, give this book a try.

Barry Lopez
Barry Lopez speaking in Rochester in 2016.

The stories are fictional testimonials by a translator, an indigenous rights expert, a doctor, a cabinetmaker, an architect, a historian, and others. They live and work in China, Brazil, France, Germany and across the globe.

Each has undergone a spiritual or political awakening and chosen to resist the mainstream. For them, the personal has become political. Their causes include environmental degradation, materialism, indigenous rights, war, and mindless conformity.

Because of their resistance, they have become “parties of interest” to the government. All have gone into hiding.

This isn’t entertaining, light, or necessarily comforting reading, and the collection won’t appeal to everyone. I’ve enjoyed reconnecting with Resistance in the days before the inauguration.

Here are selected excerpts:

“We regard ourselves as servants of memory. We will not be the servants of your progress. We seek a politics that goes beyond nation and race. We advocate for air and water without contamination, even if the contamination be called harmless or is to be placed there for our own good. We believe in the imagination and in the variety of its architectures, not in one plan for all, even if it is God’s plan. We believe in the divinity of life, in all its human variety. We believe that everything can be remembered in time, that anyone may be redeemed, that no hierarchy is worth figuring out, that no flower or animal or body of water or star is common, that poetry is the key to a lock worth springing, that what is called for is not subjugation, but genuflection.”


“Our strategy is this: we believe if we can say what many already know in such a way as to incite courage, if the image or the word or the act breaches the indifference by which people survive, day to day, enough will protest that by their physical voices alone they will stir the hurricane.”


“We are not to be found now. We have unraveled ourselves from our residences, our situations. But like a bulb in a basement, suddenly somewhere we will turn on again in darkness….We will disrupt through witness, remembrance, and the courtship of the imagination.”

Resistance also features the work of artist Alan Magee.


Photo by Peter Hallinan, Melanesian art expert.  I didn’t know Peter well enough to know his political beliefs, but his unconventional life reminds me of the characters in Resistance.



What Steven Pressfield told me

I wanted to share author Steven Pressfield’s recent blog post, “Why I Don’t Speak,” the minute I read it on the “Writing Wednesdays” column of his website. He writes about why he doesn’t accept invitations to speak about his books on writing and creativity.

But my blog is for book lovers, I reminded myself, and he wrote “Why I Don’t Speak” primarily for writers and others involved in creative projects. (Though he would be the first to say creativity is any sustained effort to bring something to fruition, such as training for a marathon, overcoming an addiction, advocating for a social cause.)

He writes,

“In the secret communion between writer and reader, soul-altering material was gifted to me, and I accepted it with gratitude. No one knew. Not even the writer. But he or she had imparted something seminal, and it changed me and saved me.”

The italics are mine.

I think readers already know about the secret communion between writer and reader.

But what they may not know: Pressfield says the biggest challenge of any creative act, of giving the gift of soul-altering material, is overcoming resistance.

I have Pressfield’s book, Do the Work, on my “What I’m Reading” sidebar. I’ve been spending time with Do the Work along with his other book, The War of Art, as I look at my own writing process.

He has hard things to say about how insidious resistance can be. How we often blame our lack of progress, our inability to do the work, on some external obstacle when, really, we need to look inside ourselves.

I felt squirmy as I read certain passages. I didn’t like knowing these things about myself. And once I knew these uncomfortable truths, I then had to actually change.

Pressfield writes,

“I’m confessing some of the darkest hours and most shameful failures of my life. But more than that, I’m holding these moments up to the reader, who no doubt has experienced the same in her own life, as a means of confronting her and making her face her own shit. I don’t know how to do that in a public setting, and I wouldn’t want to try. It’s too private. It’s too personal.”

That’s why Pressfield doesn’t do speaking engagements.

Even though authors make pulling off that communion between writer and reader look easy, it’s not. The great, gifted writers confront the same resistance that is in all of us.

The next time you finish reading a book that possessed you or changed you; the next time you re-read a favorite, treasured work – know that the writer may have had to fight a great battle to bring her creation into the world.

She fought, and won.