This semester I was presented with the opportunity to attend a question-and-answer session with Berry Lopez, an author I’ve come to admire and respect for both his award-winning fiction and non-fiction. I’d spent the last five months exploring and discussing many aspects of one of his books, so it’s a bit of an understatement to say that meeting him in person was much anticipated. What I gleaned from the experience more than exceeded my expectations. Within a period of less than two hours, I learned more about what it means to be a writer than I have in my entire life, even though it wasn’t an actual lecture about writing. Instead, Lopez used our questions to weave a beautiful story about life as a traveling writer, which in the end is all that mattered.
Five Things I Learned from Lopez
It’s the story and the reader, not the storyteller. The storyteller has an obligation to write an engaging story that allows the readers to ask their own questions. It’s an ethical relationship with the reader. As a storyteller, you cannot assume the right to tell someone what to think. You have the moral responsibility to paint a picture that encourages them to think.
Writers have to put themselves at risk. If you’re writing in a comfortable situation, then it’s easy to assume the most obvious connections and fall into arrogance. As a writer, you must take every effort to remain humble and accept a level of ignorance, because assuming knowledge deteriorates your ability and willingness to learn. That’s why a writer has to take risks: when you allow yourself to venture into the unknown and engage in a situation that is over your head, then you will make connections from a learner’s vantage point. You will gain more knowledge and understand how to offer that gift with humility.
Cultivate an attitude of reverence. If you respect the world and the people around you, then your writing will gain a credibility from its readers. This includes respect for other lifestyles, other beliefs, and other cultures. You have to be willing to look at the world in different perspectives. Moments of silence should remain, because an interruption disrupts the divinity woven into and among lives. Words should be used carefully and precisely, because they are describing the miracles of time. A misplaced word can remove the miracle from that divinity.
Writing isn’t a career, it is a lifestyle. A career is conventional; it can be detached from self. On the other hand, writing is everything. It isn’t a separate being but your innermost core, a piece of your soul. A career can be about the paycheck. Writing is about connecting words and ideas in a pattern of unique magnificence; it can never be about the money, because then it loses its initial heart and worth. Words aren’t about making sales, they’re about creating a new frame for the readers to view the world in. Thus, a writer must allow their writing to become everything that they are.
Gain a foundation of surface issues before tackling deep subjects. If a writer tries to tackle deep subjects before understanding the simple mechanics of the surrounding world, then the words will be lost in the depth itself. You have to learn to write about hard things in a simple way—that way people can understand. Allow the deeper meanings and topics to rest beneath the surface. Conceal the true treasure to preserve its absolute worth.
Those two hours of listening to Lopez’s stories proved to be an invaluable lesson. I learned things about life and myself, but mostly I became aware of key characteristics possessed by a good writer. He encouraged me to cultivate myself as a writer, not just my writing. He challenged me to seek new perspectives about the world and to use those perspectives to reach other people. He allowed me to realize that I had become complacent in my writing. I couldn’t even remember the last time I had taken a true risk as a writer. He offered inspiring life lessons, and I’m certainly ready to carry them with me on my future adventures.