For National Book Award-winning author Barry Lopez, music and writing go hand-in-hand. Although often referred to as an author and journalist, Lopez considers himself more of a storyteller-artist who creates art from shared experiences.
On Wednesday, April 24 in Cornerstone Arts Center, Lopez sat down with his longtime friend and editor Mark Bryant to reflect upon his life’s work in a conversation titled “An Evening with Barry Lopez.” In front of an extensive audience consisting of faculty, local journalists, and students, Lopez disclosed a wealth of wisdom acquired from a lifetime of world travel.
The scope of Lopez’s work documents his extensive travel to foreign cultures and landscapes. According to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dave Philipps, Lopez’s legacy as a journalist, however, far surpasses mere ethnography. Lopez’s writing is “an art, [used] to reveal the ancient and living world.”
Then, Bryant opened the conversation with a rumination on Lopez’s testimony “to the world [that] we have made and destroyed.” Bryant emphasized that Lopez’s writing expertly articulates the profound fragility of the human race as well as its relationship with the environment throughout history.
The key to Lopez’s earnest work, nevertheless, was Lopez’ self-designation as a storyteller. He noted that, as a storyteller, his goal was not to write for everybody. That is, Lopez does not begin a narrative with a target audience in mind. “You will lose souls if you write for everybody,” he stressed. Instead, his goal in writing was to elevate the human heart.
“Every person is struggling to become someone,” Lopez said. Storytelling, from Lopez’s perspective, is to provide an intimate space where both the writer and the reader can discover beauty together. Regardless of whether beauty is found in a tragic narrative or in an extraordinary natural wonder, finding beauty creates space for self-discovery.
In an increasingly industrialized world, Lopez disclosed the difficulty of his task as a storyteller. As a man who witnessed widespread cultural and natural destruction throughout the course of his life, finding beauty in the reconciliation between the shattered pieces of humankind was not simple. Ultimately, his vision for his writing career was to fill the reader with hope in the midst of great darkness.
Lopez lamented the progress-driven mindset of Western thought. The constant societal and cultural imperative to move forward has destroyed identities and communities. On the contrary, Lopez said, many of the communities of Indigenous Peoples about whom he has written prioritize a stability that is lacking in Western societies. Because these communities do not live with a constant stress to move forward, each possesses a “deep reservoir of knowledge” dating back many generations. Lopez hopes to influence Western society to slow down, take a step back, and care for people.
Like music, writing is an art. Composers do not begin to create a piece of music until they have listened to the world around them. Likewise, a writer does not begin writing until they have engaged in extensive dialogue and discerned how to share the beauty within their knowledge. Lopez emphasized that he would not have the same capacity to be a storyteller if he had not embraced the vulnerability inherent in simple listening.
Lopez concluded with advice to young writers, in which he urged them to stop thinking about writing as entertainment. “We already have plenty of that,” he said. Writing is meant to engage the reader and give meaning to one’s life. He emphasized that writers should regard the writer and the reader as “us,” in order to create a more empathetic and sensitive world for future generations.