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Barry Lopez: Tell a story that helps

May 5, 2015

Barry Lopez (source of photo)

Barry Lopez (source of photo)

Barry Lopez is one of the writers who has ‘accompanied’ me on most of my adult journey as an artist. (See my post Barry Lopez, A literature of hope ). He is a nature writer, but that short description doesn’t do him justice. He is also a poet who feels the pain of the Earth deeply. And, he is an artist who understands and exemplifies what art is for, especially in these times.

I love these artists and role models,who have sustained their passion and honed their craft over the years. They are gradually turning into our present day Elders. Hearing Gary Snyder or Barry Lopez speak unfailingly reunites me with the best in myself.

This morning I looked at an almost completed draft of my book so far and couldn’t relate to it. I’d momentarily lost my sense of True North, and wondered how I would finish it with this late-stage failing of nerve. Unable to write, I decided to do some research for a later chapter on ‘art and wounded places’, and watched several of Lopez’s talks. And one of them showed the way out of of my impasse. It gave me a new lens for looking at my work and lifted me out of the familiar contradictions I usually get caught in when stuck.

He spoke about story telling. He’d had a conversation with a traditional man,( I sense he meant someone indigenous), and asked if this man’s people made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction like we do in Western society. The man answered, ‘For us, the difference isn’t between fiction and non-fiction, but between an authentic and inauthentic story.

Lopez asked him the difference and he said, ‘An authentic story is about us.’

‘Yes?’, Lopez asked.

‘And an inauthentic story is about you’, replied the man.

Lopez had a crucial insight as a result of this conversation. He realised that the story you tell as a story teller is not worth our listening to if it is just about you. He said,’We don’t need to know about you, we need to know about us’. I think what he is saying here, is that a writer needs to delve down beyond the purely personal until he strikes something universal in human experience which will illuminate all our lives. Also, adding my own note here, if an artist is working with rage or pain, she has a responsibility to transform it before it hits the page. We all know how bad life can be, we have the mass media to tell us all about that.

It is the artist alchemist’s task to harness that personal negativity and transcend it, and to use it as raw material to craft images of hope.

Lopez says that an authentic story needs to do two things; first of all it has to help. And secondly it has to be about ‘us’.

I want everything I write to end with this note:’Here is what I saw, what do you think?’. Instead of saying, ‘Here is what I saw and this is what you should believe’. -B.Lopez

The writers, artists and musicians I’ve respected most and who have inspired me in my life so far, are growing older along with me. Like Barry Lopez, time and experience distil their youthful passion to a focused potency. I feel enormous wisdom radiating from these people. But even more than the understanding they have gained through living and practising their calling, they embody compassion.

Lopez said,’

I want more than anything to see people do well. I want to see people thrive. And the system I see in place all over the world is killing people. I feel that as a physical pain, as grief every day when I get up in the morning. What drives me is – if you’re going to tell a story, tell a story that helps. If you’re going to collaborate with directors, filmmakers, artists et , make common cause with people whose desire is to help.

Not to direct the show or tell somebody else what to think, but to behave in a helpful manner for the benefit of everybody.

(See the 3 minute clip of this talk here )

 

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5 Responses to “Barry Lopez: Tell a story that helps”


  1. That is wonderful Sarah, thank you for that. Wisdom. And I’m sure that your book will be inspirational too.


    • Eoin, thanks for your comment and for spending some time reading posts and liking them.I value that.

      And thank you too, for your faith in my book….I read over what I’ve written so far in the light of what Lopez said, being ready to trash a lot. But luckily, what I have so far feels truthful, so I can go on without any major upheavals.


  2. This is a very interesting post. I enjoyed watching the video clip and spent some time reflecting on what he was saying. I think his words apply equally to visual artists as well as writers. It is all to easy as a visual artist to create a work which ‘makes the statement’ or ‘tells the whole story’, when really what we should really do is ask the question “what do you think?” It’s really got me thinking about how I can do this through my own work. I shall look forward to seeing your book when it is ready.


    • paisley, great that you watched the clip and also spent some time thinking about what Lopez had to say. I agree with you about it applying to visual art as well, that is a really nice insight- not explaining everything through a painting, but leaving room for others to respond in their own way.

      thanks for your kind words about my book. It helps me to stay with it to think of potential readers (something that I never think about during the writing process, honestly!), and it someday being of benefit or use to somebody.


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