Wisdom from a Master

By Virginia Parker Staat

“Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
~ Barry Lopez

Acclaimed nature writer Barry Lopez passed away on Christmas Day, 2020. I recently read a tribute to Lopez in the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. I learned several interesting things about the man. For example, Lopez was an accomplished photographer before he became a writer. Perhaps his beginning in photography enabled him to paint those lovely landscapes into words. Lopez was a master at writing landscapes. His lyrical descriptions earned him a National Book Award and other exemplary honors.

Lopez was also a great teacher and enjoyed sharing his craft with others. By studying the works and lessons from great writers, we can improve our own. With this in mind, I began researching writing lessons Lopez had offered. Here are a few snippets of wisdom from this master.

Lopez was an avid traveler, visiting over 70 different countries during his lifetime. In an interview with the Seattle Times, Lopez said that writing about all he has seen and heard on his treks would be meaningless without a larger purpose. He offered this advice to outdoor writers: “The writer is the servant, not the important person. Your job is to find language that elevates human experience to such a level your reader will feel, when she moves away from your pages, more confident, with a deeper sense of her own self-worth.”

Lopez once asked an indigenous Australian man about the difference between fiction and nonfiction stories. The man told Lopez, “You know for us the difference is not between fiction and nonfiction. It’s between an authentic and inauthentic story. An authentic story is about us. An inauthentic story is about you.”

Lopez took the man’s statement to heart. He later said, “So if you’re going to tell a story, and you want it to be an authentic story, it seems to me it’s got to do two things: First of all, it’s got to help, the story has to help. And the second thing is, it’s got to be about us.

The listener or the reader does not want to be in the position of being lectured to or being treated as somebody who’s not capable of knowing, or treated like an outsider, and that’s a very valuable lesson for me as a writer… I want everything that I write to end with this note: Here’s what I saw, what do you think? Instead of saying ‘here’s what I saw, and here’s what you should believe.’”

From his blog, Lopez offered this advice to nature writers: “Be discriminating and be discerning about the work you set for yourself. That done, be the untutored traveler, the eager reader, the enthusiastic listener. Put what you learn together carefully, and then write thoughtfully, with respect both for the reader and your sources.”

At a Sun Valley Writer’s Conference interview Lopez discussed how he approached his writing subjects. He said, “You know, when you write about the world, you try to learn something about its components. When I was young, I really wanted to learn about wolves. They were so metaphorically rich. They translated their lives, translated a narrative, into so many corners of human experience that if I devoted myself to that subject, I’d learn something. And if I was lucky, I’d be able to write about it in such a way that a person could say, ‘I learned something from this book that I needed for my own life.’”

What made Barry Lopez’s writing so full of wisdom? In The Land’s Wild Music, Mark Tredinnick wrote, “His words are full of weather, hydrology, the flight of birds, the eloquent tracks of animals, the work and words of men and women, the anguish of wolves, the grief of streams, the sound of shifting basalt river stones, somewhere—and they seem to be both sound and also elusive, as places are, as the land, is. From these elegantly limned relationships in the land he allows ideas to rise like fish to the surface of his mind, and he allows an intuited poetic order of place to tincture and illuminate the spaces made by the tender forms of his sentences, just like dawn on the land.”

For me, Barry Lopez was much like a translator. He would become part of a parcel of landscape and learn its language, its history, its flora and fauna, its stories. Then, with respect and purpose, Lopez would translate what he learned and weave it like a tapestry into rhythmic and lyrical words. His voice will be truly missed.