Barry Lopez on Storytelling and His Advice on the Three Steps to Becoming a Writer

“It is through story that we embrace the great breadth of memory, that we can distinguish what is true, and that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us.”

Barry Lopez on Storytelling and His Advice on the Three Steps to Becoming a Writer

The self is nothing without story. All human beings have an internal narrative that is the basis of their identity and memories. The subset of humans who identify themselves as writers see storytelling as the way they express their desire to understand and communicate with the world. “Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want,” wrote Ursula K. Le Guin, that exquisite specimen of the subset. The storyteller’s role, wrote the exquisite Baldwin, is “to make you realize the doom and glory of knowing who you are and what you are.”

Stories are at their best when they dilate the locus. Please enter your email addressTo find the glory and doom in knowing that each of us is a part something larger than ourselves, to create from that knowledge something more than an identity. We might refer to it as belonging. Perhaps we could call it transcendence.

The most powerful and precise take on storytelling power I’ve ever seen comes from Barry Lopez (January 6, 1945–December 25, 2020), whose vast and varied body of work illuminates with uncommon radiance the interleaving of nature and human nature — the way our relationship with Earth and the universe shapes our relationship with ourselves and each other.

Charlie Mackesy, Art for The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

In his altogether superb essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (public library) — which also gave us his insight into the role of pattern, perspective, and trust in storytelling — he considers the essence of the art, into which he arrived through the portal of anthropology:

In all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one’s life. Wherever I’ve traveled — Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan — I’ve found that the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories are not intended to give advice, nor do they explain how to live with a partner or where God is. Instead, they offer patterns of sound, association, event, and image. As we become more involved as readers and listeners in these stories, our lives might be reimagined. Story is how we learn to embrace our vast memory and can discern what truths. We may also be able to glimpse ways of living without despair, even in the face of all the terror that surrounds us.

Ping Zhu’s Art for A Velocity Of Being: Letters to Young Readers Available as a printed version.

Lopez relates how, while on long trans-Pacific flights, his seatmate spotted his occupation and said that his 13-year-old daughter wanted to be a writer. He then asked for his advice.

The man was instructed to tell his daughter three things. Du Bois’s advice to his own teenage daughter; the second of Rachel Carson’s assurance that “if you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in… you will interest other people”; the third of Susan Sontag’s insistence that the writer’s job is “to make us see the world as it is, full of many different claims and parts and experiences.”

Lopez gave this to the father-in-waiting:

  1. Tell her to read… Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. There is no way to know what will happen when a human being interacts with written language. She may be paying attention to things in the words beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Encourage her to take in classics. The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful, and, to borrow Evan Connell’s observation, with a good book you never touch bottom. However, this book will not allow your daughter to experience the heroism and love that have been a part of women’s writings for so long. She will need to look for these voices. If she starts to inquire on her own, give her either George Eliot or Alexandra David Neel a gift. To the Lighthouse.
  2. Your daughter should know that reading books and studying grammar can help her learn about writing, but she must also be able to read and understand the structure of ideas and how to organize them. Her beliefs will be the foundation of her communication with us. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing along information, of which we are in no great need. Help her understand what she is saying.
  3. Encourage your daughter to leave the city and support her in this endeavor. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. When she comes back, she’ll be better equipped to comprehend why she likes the familiar and it will also give her a new appreciation of how lucky we are to have these experiences.
Illustration by David Byrne, A History of the World (in Dingbats).

Lopez asked the father to swallow it all and Lopez gave him his advice.

Read. Learn what you really believe. Avoid the routine. Every writer… will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three I trust.

He reflects on the aspirations he had in his life.

If I were asked what I want to accomplish as a writer, I would say it’s to contribute to a literature of hope. My metaphors are rooted in my California childhood and take much of their language form Jesuit schools in New York City. I hope to create stories that help men and women find trustworthy patterns.

Ofra Amit from A Velocity of Being: The Letters for a Young Reader. This book is also available as a print.

With an eye to his formative childhood passion for raising tumbler pigeons and releasing them into the open sky — “an experience so exhilarating I would turn slowly under them in circles of glee” — he adds:

Each story represents a trust act between the writer and reader. A writer’s decisions can either harm or benefit the local community. When I write, I can imagine a child in California wishing to give away what he’s just seen — a wild animal fleeing through creosote cover in the desert, casting a bright — eyed backward glance. Three lines of conversation overheard seem to provide everything necessary to heal the gap between soul and body. As I think back to that little boy, giggling under his pigeons with delight, it is clear to me that it takes a lifetime for you to communicate what you are trying to say, or to see the way out. It’s there, and you let it go. You then try it again.

Complement with George Saunders on the key to great storytelling, Maurice Sendak on music as the secret to storytelling, Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a great story, and Jeanette Winterson’s ten tips on writing (which apply to just about all creative work), then revisit Beethoven’s touching letter of advice to a little girl who had asked him what it takes to be an artist.

Giving = Being Loving

Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.

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