Monday, August 20, 2007

The Lopez Credo

Once I was asked by a seatmate on a trans-Pacific flight, a man who took the liberty of glancing repeatedly at the correspondence in my lap, what instruction he should give his fifteen-year-old daughter, who wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know how to answer him, but before I could think I heard myself saying, “Tell your daughter three things.” Tell her to read, I said. Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and a 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. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful.

Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organization of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. 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. So help her discover what she means.

Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.

Read. Find out what you truly believe. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these are three that I trust.

Barry Lopez, quoted by Robert Macfarlane, via The Book Depository


Matt Mullenix said...

"...if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone."

I love that. A much more positive take on Hemingway's, "No complete bastard ever wrote a good sentence."

pluvialis said...

It is good, isn't it?

Just went for a walk with the gos, and met a chap from Kazakhstan. Almaty. He straight away enquired about my plans for hunting with the gos. The word "pet" was not mentioned! Yay!

Someone else pointed and yelled "Harry Potter!!" WTF?

Matt Mullenix said...

Envious of your meeting on the street! That must have been nice.

I've always wondered what it would be like to live somewhere that falconry was as well known as football. You'd never have to explain yourself. I guess there are places like that still, but I'm not sure any would be great vacation spots.

And come to think of it, I would probably still have to explain myself.

Heidi the Hick said...

What excellent writing advice.

I really love having kids old enough to wipe their own noses, giving me time to read again.

I'm still working on what I truly believe. I re-form it daily.

I got away from the familiar by moving off the family farm and into the burbs of the big city. That, for me, was like a normal person moving across the world.

I used to be very resentful of having moved 6 times in three years- and with a growing collection of babies and critters and boxes in tow. But it all goes into something else, eventually. It becomes fuel...

Steve Bodio said...

I used to use something very like the "Read" idea when I taught writing-- also quoting Jarrell's "Read at will!"

Matt said "guess there are places like that still, but I'm not sure any would be great vacation spots."

But I LOVE Kazakhstan and Mongolia and prefer them as "vacation" spots (and near Almaty is more civilized than where I live!)