Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination

Conversations with Barry Lopez: Walking the Path of Imagination

by William E. Tydeman


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Thursday, January 24

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806144078
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 08/30/2013
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,250,347
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

William E. Tydeman is coeditor of Reading into Photography: Selected Essays, 1859–1980 and An Island in the Sky: Llano Estacado.

Read an Excerpt

Conversations with Barry Lopez

Walking the Path of Imagination

By William E. Tydeman


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5050-5


The Search for Seamless Coherence

Finn Rock, Oregon

April 29, 2002

WILLIAM E. TYDEMAN:I was intrigued with what we were talking about earlier. You had a recent conversation where the speaker made the distinction between nature writing and the work of literature.

BARRY LOPEZ: Well, I think the person was trying to offer a compliment, but the way it was phrased, I guess you might call it "revealing." He said his work was different from mine because he was "a nature writer but not a literary writer."

This isn't something I spend a lot of time trying to unravel, but for me, "nature writing" is a form of literature. I don't like the term itself because it suggests an emphasis on the metaphor. You wouldn't call a novel informed by an awareness of Freudian psychology "psychology writing," you'd just say it was a novel. Also, unfortunately, for many people "nature writing" means a narrow type of writing—nonfiction dealing with elements of the natural world and going no further. The body of work I identify as "nature writing" uses natural history, archaeology, anthropology, biology, and geography to explore themes that literature traditionally has addressed—justice, Eros, and so on. For example, what is the nature of a successful individual life considered against the fate of a community? What are the boundaries of a moral contract with the world? The central theme in nature writing, I think, is a question: What are just relations? What is a person's just relationship with a place? What are just relations between a community and a place? Today, these familiar questions are increasingly informed by biology. Biologists, as distinct from politicians, with their constituencies and agendas, are saying, "We have a problem here. We're going to be in a lethal crunch for fresh water in twenty-five years," or "We're now facing terrifying issues because of our inadvertent disturbance of viral ecologies." So I think what you can say now about nature writing, as it's developing, is that it's an attempt by men and women, who in another era might have written literature informed by other metaphors—social class, destiny—to address human biological fate. But I have to assume that people in the academy still strongly resist the whole idea that natural history can be an appropriate framework for literature.

TYDEMAN:Well, that makes me think of the label applied to your nonfiction work—creative nonfiction.

LOPEZ: I don't know what to say about these labels. I don't ponder them, you know. They don't arise from within me. They come from the outside. They're imposed. If somebody wants to call what I do "creative nonfiction" or "the fiction of fact"—a term applied to some of my short stories—it's none of my concern. From time to time in a specific interview or in reading a book review, I might be irritated with this, but it's no more than any writer's ordinary irritation with being put in a box. "Creative nonfiction" implies there's a kind of nonfiction that's not creative, and I don't know what that's supposed to be. If you tell me it's journalism, well, we already have that term. Journalism is not noncreative nonfiction. I think the term "creative nonfiction" came about in response to a body of work produced in the sixties that was not necessarily informed by the techniques of literary fiction, dialogue for example, but that was written with greater concern for the language itself. So "creative nonfiction," I think, became a term for the nonfiction of beautiful language, where the reader sensed the writer was as much interested in the language as the subject. For me, in both fiction and nonfiction, there's no separation between the intensity of my interest in the idea or subject and the intensity of my interest in expressing the idea well. My rewriting, I would say, is a struggle to find beautiful language, not so much a struggle with thoughts—although it's very difficult to take this apart.

"Thought" is not a word I associate with writing fiction. Writing fiction is not a kind of "thinking" for me, it's a kind of "expressing." Writing an essay is a kind of "thinking." Or let's say that in the essay the effort to think is more intentional—"now this thought is going to lead to this thought." In fiction, for me, the next scene grows more legitimately out of the emotion of an earlier scene, rather than out of any factual material. It is intuitive, not logical or expository. Plot is not something that has ever strongly attracted me. I'm not trying to write a literature in which there's some mechanism at work. I'm interested in something else that I can't actually name, but that compels the story I'm writing as much as plot compels the stories of other writers.

TYDEMAN:So the connection you often see in fiction is between emotion and landscape, where in Arctic Dreams it was between imagination and landscape?

LOPEZ: Yes. And although it's a very fine line of distinction, that's where I want to move next in nonfiction, to the relationship between emotion and landscape. And the single emotion I'm most interested in is hope. Hope is a virtue but it's also an emotion. It would be just as interesting, I think, to explore the relationship between the emotion of anger and landscape. Some of the things I'm curious about here are the ways in which the perception of volumes of space falls together with a sense of time passing, an emotional awareness of volume and increment. How, by bringing spatial volume and temporal increment together, can I create something that makes a reader hopeful? I think you can evoke aspects of the land in prose in a way that makes people hopeful about their lives. I think you can also describe landscapes that are not just physically but metaphysically dreary, and that those descriptions can make readers lose a sense of hope about the subtle possibilities of their own lives. For me—and maybe there is some mode of critical thinking about this—the creation of story is a social act. It's driven by individual vision, of course, but in the end I think story is social, and part of what makes it social is this impact it can have on the psyche of the reader. My sense is that story developed in parallel with the capacity to remember in Homo sapiens. I don't mean "where did we cache the food last spring?" but memory operating at a more esoteric level, recalling, say, the circumstances that induced loving behavior. Story, it seems to me, begins as a mnemonic device. It carries memory outside the brain and employs it in a social context. So you could say, a person hears a story and feels better; a person hears the story and they remember who they are, or who they want to become, or what it is that they mean. I think story is rooted in the same little piece of historical ground out of which the capacity to remember and the penchant to forget come.

TYDEMAN:You have written a good deal about memory and the relationship of memory to story. But you've also said that we as humans aren't attuned to the vertical dimension. We tend to focus on the horizon—the plane that's in front of us. You suggested that between these spatial dimensions there is a possibility for new ways of seeing.

LOPEZ: Or thinking. Artists and writers are constantly changing the sense of orthodoxy in perceived relationships—visual, acoustical, spatial, emotional relationships. All this work stimulates thinking. So, knowing we are horizontally oriented, it just makes me more curious about the vertical dimension. As a writer, I always want to stimulate a sense of awareness. I want to create and intensify patterns. When I listen to music, I always hear patterns.

When I'm walking in the woods, I sense patterns. Walking in the woods with somebody, I might identify a plant, but the naming of the plant comes out of a pattern of movement, the conjunction of a time of year with that particular space. For example, knowing that I'm coming off a ridge and down onto a south-facing slope in May, I'm going to be looking for certain kinds of plants that I'm not going to find on the north side. So I'm always looking for these patterns when I'm writing, though I'm not necessarily thinking about a pattern—it's like I've caught something in a sidelong glance and, like a painter, I'm trying to render it. I'm making a pattern in language that stands in place of the pattern that I've seen or felt. But this kind of intelligence can also get in the way of a story. I have to remind myself sometimes when I'm writing fiction that it's a good thing not to be thinking, because then I might be trying to make a point. Writing a short story to make a point seems vaguely contradictory to me. Infiction I don't want to make a point, I want to report a pattern I'm aware of, make it work in a dramatic narrative, and leave it at that, and trust that the reader encountering this pattern will be compelled to think about life differently.

Shifting temporal increment and spatial volume within a story is something I want to explore now. Take one extreme, "doing time" in prison, where the increments of time, for the most part, never change. From one day to the next it's a routine. And the spatial volumes never change. The nightmare of being in prison is that there is only this one spatiotemporal pattern, and it drives you deep into places you don't want to be. So to get out of prison, literally or figuratively, would be to stop "doing time," to break that pattern. I think it's legitimate to posit that many people in this country live the lives of prisoners, no matter how much money they have or how much freedom they think they've got—because they can't make or don't want any change in their spatial or temporal frameworks. Take this one step further and you're face-to-face with fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, for me, is the sign of a failure of imagination. It's the inability to modify spatial and temporal frameworks in the face of trouble, or an unwillingness to do so, or complacency about the frameworks you're using.

I think what stories do is change slightly the ordinary spatial and temporal frameworks of life, so that you can recover a feeling we often lose, a sense of the inexplicable weirdness of everyday life. Our imaginations are largely colonial, in the sense that we wonder how to control everything we can. If something resists us, we either find a way to control it, or as a last resort, believe we control it. The adolescent notion of controlling nature, for example, is an expression of this tendency to believe that human beings can control everything. I love this phrase, "controlling your emotions." It prompts the question, Why? If somebody said, "shape your emotions" or "reshape your emotions," I could understand that, but to "control" them is to take the fundamentalist's position that there is a right and a wrong way for emotion to express itself. Certainly, morally and legally there is a reason to control emotions like hate and anger, but to control your emotions means to some extent to give up the landscape in which your emotions are the principal explorers.

At this point in my working life—I'm sitting here at home on a spring afternoon in 2002—I know I'm after something that's been brewing for a while about memory and emotion in fiction and nonfiction. Whatever work lies immediately ahead of me now, it will address those questions. I feel a dividing line coming between previous work and work to come.

TYDEMAN:I wonder about the notions of time implied in the temporal and spatial landscape you're talking about. Crow and Weasel is set in mythic time. Does the choice of mythic time for a story create a stronger emotional response on the part of the reader?

LOPEZ: I think not stronger, but different, a different sense of where we are. we're in myth time, things have shifted to such a degree that we're no longer in what's called "ordinary reality." That means the possibilities for the characters are very different. If we're in myth time, trees are going to talk and no one's going to say, "This can't happen." For me, there's an elision here, though, between "ordinary reality" and "extraordinary reality." What some people call "magical realism" I understand as the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life. In some cases, with some stories, what I'm trying to do is just that—draw a sense of the extraordinary from the context of the ordinary. It's often indirect. It comes out of word choice, syntax, and sentence rhythm. Suddenly there's a door where there's not been a door, and you walk through it.

TYDEMAN:So the distinction between an analytic frame of mind—the thinking mind—and the imagination, it's not so much a conscious choice, but is it impelled or dictated by the structural requirements of the story?

LOPEZ: Yes, I work in these forms called fiction and nonfiction. I have fairly conservative ideas about what the differences between them are, but what each form comes down to for me is a moral contract, an understanding between a reader and a writer. The writer's side of the contract says something like, in exchange for your attentiveness, I will make a dependable report about the kind of life we're sharing. If it's a work of fiction, you can depend on these characters being motivated by something in the story or in the history that precedes it. You're not going to feel, reading the story, that you've been "had" or get the sense that it's only about the author. So the story, I would say, has some requirements dictated by entering into a relationship with the reader; but for me as a writer, what's driving the whole thing is invention. Or imagination.

TYDEMAN:But invention or imagination make use of devices that may never transgress into certain other forms of experimentation. In the arena you describe, are there limitations?

LOPEZ: I'm having trouble with this because I feel like a writer who's been given two forms to work in by his culture, and who uses those forms, but sees them both as a means to an end. The end, for me, is always the same—maintaining a good relationship with the reader. I've used the distinction before between an "authentic" and an "inauthentic" story. What makes an authentic story, I would say, is establishing a moral relationship with the reader. The reader believes you can be trusted. If you asked me what makes a story inauthentic, it could be making up a personal history, for example, and offering it to the reader as nonfiction. In memoir, I don't think you should make up anything crucial or pivotal. Of course, in memoir both the reader and the writer know many details are lost and so substitutions are made. The issue is not the imperfection of memory but deceit. The idea of an imperfect memory strikes me, actually, as a misnomer. I don't understand memory as a mechanism pointed toward perfection, which records the world like a camera. Memory is the record of a process of selection. What an individual selects out of all that might be remembered in a moment grows out of that individual's personal history and emotional state. If you and I witness the same event and remember it differently, that's an expression of a difference in our personalities. In an ideal society, instead of asking who remembers what happened, we'd say, "Will everyone who saw what happened tell us what they remember?" That's what a library does. That's why there are so many books in the library.

My sense that story originated as a response to the development of complex memory is an idea that I can feel growing in me now. I don't know where it's going to take me; but I can say I'm not comfortable as a reader with the idea, for example, of a memoir that documents a life that was never lived. I think such deceptions are part of the burden of misdirection society has to deal with now, because it has banked so heavily—and so wrongly, I think—on the importance of the individual. If a society diminishes its people, it will intensify the need each person feels to be known. Advertising preys on that sense of insecurity. And the insecurity itself generates a society that becomes wayward and unstable.

I'm actually struggling with this now, because I think that there are rare people, singular people—a Bach, a Beethoven. You go back in Western history and pick out the really remarkable few. Jung said of Christ and Buddha that these men were their own idea—singular personalities. So I'm having trouble reconciling my belief in the primacy of community with a belief in the legitimacy of the extraordinary person. I prefer to understand extraordinary people as an expression of the community shaped by that individual's singular vision. I see their service to society as an ability to combine large-scale personal vision with an awareness of the plight or needs of others. For the writer—and this has nothing to do with genius and everything to do with an individual's artistic vision—maybe the great service is to fight against everything that destroys imagination.

TYDEMAN:Individual talent and the imperative of modernism to "make it new" would imply that certain figures would consciously break with tradition in an attempt to establish their own artistic talent, their own genius that eschews any relationship to the past. Couldn't we argue that some artists throw away the past to create a form that is new and unique?


Excerpted from Conversations with Barry Lopez by William E. Tydeman. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
The Search for Seamless Coherence Finn Rock, Oregon, April 29, 2002,
Science, the Imagination, and the Collaborative Search for Form Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, March 6, 2004,
Art, Activism, and the Biological Fate of Communities Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, March 24, 2007,
Works by Barry Lopez, compiled by Diane Warner,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews