Learning from writers

In struggling with the Big Writing Project lately, I’ve been getting unexpected sustenance from writers who are not particularly scholarly. It’s not easy to explain how this has worked. For instance, I heard an interview with the Creek Indian poet and musician Joy Harjo, and she said something perfectly ordinary, “be yourself,” in a way that struck deep. (Mvto!)

Barry Lopez
This afternoon, feeling a little depressed again about my rate of progress, I’ve revisited the Bill Moyers interview with Barry Lopez, from the last installment of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. Not a word of it has to do with my dissertation, yet almost every word of that conversation encouraged me to get joyfully to work. (How about that?)

You know, there are certain things that people say you shouldn’t talk about, because it makes people nervous.

The things that make us uncomfortable in public are a person who wishes to speak of what is beautiful. That makes everybody a little bit nervous, because many of us keep this jaded, cynical separateness with the world, because we’re cautious.… You have to be vulnerable in order to achieve this exchange of intimacy. And you can’t be vulnerable unless you can trust the situation. And what we’re learning, many of us, is the world is not trustworthy enough for you to be vulnerable to it and gain that intimacy.

Another thing that makes people nervous is if you speak of faith, because immediately people think, Christian faith? Or Islamic faith? … I’m not talking about any of those. I am talking about the belief in other people.

I haven’t read nearly enough of Barry Lopez’s writing. Crow and Weasel is, I think, the best storybook in English for people who are wrestling with adolescence. (Some of them may be in their 30s.) Lessons from the Wolverine refuses to be compared with anything else I’ve read. His prose always sings, so it’s reassuring to find that he gets this result like any mortal, by revising again and again.

People think that if you’ve written a book and somebody’s given you a pat on the back, then … you’re going to be fine. I know that if I’m not confused, and really afraid, my work isn’t going to be any good. When I sit at that typewriter, I have to be frightened of what I’m trying to do. I’m frightened by my own, belief that I can actually get a story down on paper. I still have that thing in my mind from childhood, “Who cares what you have to say?” So, my path is the same path.

Yeah, I needed the reminder.

One of the things the interview with Lopez helped me realize is that, in writing about Creek country in the nineteenth-century South, I need not be shy about describing the landscape. It is not the same one we have around us today. It was beautiful, compelling, dangerous, changeable, and it mattered like nothing else to the people I’m writing about. So it now seems absurd to be detached and restrained in describing the landscape as best I can.

Watch this interview, even if you already have.

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