It is a cold, overcast morning. I am sitting at a coffee shop with Juno flopped at my side, sipping slowly on both a brew and a book.
Im currently reading About this Life by Barry Lopez. Mr Lopez is an American author who writes both fiction and non-fiction. I am finding his essays on nature, landscape and the movement of culture and relationship within both, meditative, beautiful and capturing.
His writing voice in this collection of travel essays reminds me of one of my favourite naturalist writers, Peter Matthiessen. Unexpectedly, as I moved into the stories, Lopez mentions him as one of his favourite authors too.
The book is good. It ushers a slow read.
So far he has shown me the Galápagos Islands and a remote Japanese island of Hokkaido. Rich sentences and crafted descriptions enforce a reflective lingering. Opening the environment from just things, Lopez shows us what these things are, and why that matters.
Lopez tells us their names, and then colours them in.
Once, during a long trans-Pacific flight, Mr Lopez was asked by a stranger for advice for his daughter on how to be a good writer. His advice:
‘Tell your daughter three things.’
“Tell her to read, I said. Tell her to read whatever interests her, and protect her if someone declares what she’s reading to be trash. No one can fathom what happens between a human being and written language. She may be paying attention to things in the world beyond anyone else’s comprehension, things that feed her curiosity, her singular heart and mind. Tell her to read classics like The Odyssey. They’ve been around a long time because the patterns in them have proved endlessly useful, and, to borrow Evan Connell’s observation, with a good book you never touch bottom. But warn your daughter that ideas of heroism, of love, of human duty and devotion that women have been writing about for centuries will not be available to her in this form. To find these voices she will have to search. When, on her own, she begins to ask, make her a present of George Eliot, or the travel writing of Alexandra David-Neel, or To the Lighthouse.
“Second, I said, tell your daughter that she can learn a great deal about writing by reading and by studying books about grammar and the organization of ideas, but that if she wishes to write well she will have to become someone. She will have to discover her beliefs, and then speak to us from within those beliefs. If her prose doesn’t come out of her belief, whatever that proves to be, she will only be passing on information, of which we are in no great need. So help her discover what she means.
“Finally, I said, tell your daughter to get out of town, and help her do that. I don’t necessarily mean to travel to Kazakhstan, or wherever, but to learn another language, to live with people other than her own, to separate herself from the familiar. Then, when she returns, she will be better able to understand why she loves the familiar, and will give us a fresh sense of how fortunate we are to share these things.
“Read. Find out what you truly are. Get away from the familiar. Every writer, I told him, will offer you thoughts about writing that are different, but these three I trust.”