Pattern, Perspective, and Trust: Barry Lopez on Storytelling


“It is through story… 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.”


Pattern, Perspective, and Trust: Barry Lopez on Storytelling

Our species is self-contradictory, moving in a world that’s constantly changing and spotting only fragments. This is the hallmark of our species: we are self-contradictory creatures moving through a discontinuous world, glimpsing only fragments.

That is what we call hunger.

This is what we call sensemaking.

It’s what we call storytelling.

It is both the human instrument that makes all of the above comprehensible and also helps us understand ourselves. Its function is our shared inheritance; its form is the crucible of our difference: “Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives — we are each of us unique,” the sage and sensitive neurologist Oliver Sacks observed as he considered the building blocks of personhood.

What a difference does for our inner cohesion. Barry Lopez (January 6, 1945–December 25, 2020) explores in the introduction to his enchanting essay collection About This Life: Journeys on the Threshold of Memory (public library).

Barry Lopez. Barry Lopez.

Recounting how Cather and Faulkner and Hemingway awakened in him the reverence for story as a “powerful and clarifying human invention” when he was just learning to be a person in the world, Lopez writes:

It was not uncommon for me to come across scholars or other intelligent people outside of white middle-class, orthodox culture. I didn’t consider that these people spoke a truth no one else possessed; but, listening to them, I saw the inadequacy of my education. It lacked any suggestion that these voices were necessary, that they were relevant… In the years after those first encounters with senior Native American men, itinerant Asian poets, black jazz musicians, and translators, I deliberately began to seek the company of people outside my own narrow cultural bounds. People who were not disconnected from passion and the spiritual worlds of life, and for whom mystery wasn’t a problem to intelligence, attracted me.

In the human-nature counterpart to the evolutionary fact that diversity is nature’s wellspring of beauty and resilience, he adds:

The effect of these encounters was… an understanding that my voice, steeped in Jung, Dante, Heisenberg, Melville, and Merton, was not the only voice. My truth was not all that it claimed to be. My tongue didn’t create a language of supreme importance. The other voices of the people were just as important to our survival than our genetic variations.

Mouni Feddag, Art from A Velocity of Being – Letters for a Young Reader. Available as a printed copy, to benefit the New York public libraries system.

A diversity of viewpoints, paradoxically, gives us our humanity back, strengthened and clarified. Although the perspectives may differ, each seeks to convey, to have, and to make tangible the same elements of truths, longings, and desires that are beneath the human experience. Lopez recalls his early training and immersion in diverse cultures during his creative journey.

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… The most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories don’t give instructions, and they are not able to teach you how to be a good friend or find God. Instead, they offer patterns of sound, association, event, and image. We might find ourselves suspended as we listen and read these patterns. This may allow us to reimagine how our lives are. 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.

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, for Walter de la Mare’s fairy-poems for children, 1922. This print is also available as stationery cards.

This, of course, is what Chinua Achebe was affirming in his reflection on how storytelling helps us survive history’s rough patches, and Susan Sontag was affirming in her reflection on how storytelling transmutes factual knowledge into wisdom, and what Ursula K. Le Guin captured with her characteristic clarity when she observed that “storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.”

Lopez puts this as well at the core of his gift for the world.

Looking back on his life — that narrative continuity stretching between the small boy in California obsessed with raising pigeons and the grown man who came to travel to Antarctica and the Galapagos, to make a body of work writing about Arctic seabirds and giant tortoises as a lens on the meaning of our human lives, and to make of this a body of work — he writes:

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 most of their language form Jesuit schools in New York City. I hope to create stories that help men and women find trustworthy patterns.

Each story requires trust from the reader and writer.

Complement this meta-fragment of Lopez’s trustworthy and life-broadening About This Life with George Saunders on the key to great storytelling and Anton Chekhov’s six rules for a riveting story, then revisit the ever-insightful and underappreciated Rebecca West on storytelling as a tool for survival.


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