Thursday, May 25, 2006

conversing with the elders

Last night I had the pleasure of hearing Barry Lopez speak, both in the Smith Ballroom at PSU, and in conversation at the reception in the Simon Benson House afterward. As always, he impressed me with his gift for articulation, his courage, and his generosity of spirit, as I'm sure he does to all he encounters. He said that to figure out who you are, in the world, and what that means to you, and to learn what it is you have to say, and how to say it fearlessly and honestly is more important than trying to figure out who you are as a writer. He said there are many that can craft something that is technically perfect, and one can marvel at the technique, but ultimately you are left with the sense that it has been written by nobody; it is something unremarkable, and in fact will be forgotten within hours.

But the imperfect voice of someone struggling to make sense of the world, to articulate what it is that wells up inside of them, will always be engaging and memorable. I can't even begin to recapitulate the myriad ways in which his words are a gift to me, and to all of humanity. He makes me near wordless with appreciation and flush with excitment. He does not turn his eye away from what is desperate, but turns towards it, confronts it head on. No matter how desperate the world is, no matter how griefstricken he might be, his unflagging sense of hope always rises to the surface. He is a breathtaking writer, both in his use of language and in the strength of his convictions, his sense of reverence-- but more than that, he is an astonishingly wonderful human being. I consider myself lucky to have been blessed with the opportunity to hear him read, and speak, and most fortunately, to talk with him, on several occasions over the last several years. He is 100% present and authentic and kind. And, as I told him to his face last night, if I can manage to be half the human being I envision him to be I will have accomplished quite a lot.

Lastly, I'll share with you something he shared, which is the definition of the word for "storyteller" in one of the Inuit languages: the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom can reveal itself. I'm paraphrasing, as the direct quote is somewhere in my friend Dave's journal, but you get the idea. He also said that one gets to be the storyteller so long as the stories that you tell help. If they stop helping, one is no longer the storyteller, even if still professing to be.