What Writing Does–Author Barry Lopez on Writing

Why do we write and tell stories? Author Barry Lopez, in this excerpt from his thoughts on writing from his web site, tells readers his thoughts about the value of writing. He reminds us that in the act of writing we draw on the fabric of the community in which we live, and learn and the histories and stories that have gone before us. Also, he suggests that in our storytelling writers bring readers into a place of hope. Writing, in giving place to the imagination, holds up a light for people to see what is possible, and enabling us to understand more of what it means to be human. In Lopez’s own words:

It’s a cliché, certainly, to say an artist or a writer should lead a questing life. It’s less often acknowledged, however, that in pursuing such a quest, a person frequently leaves behind a trail of at least minor injustices. I believe an artist has to remind herself or himself, in other words, that when you write or paint or compose music, you draw in mysterious ways on the courtesy and genius of the community. It is this sensitivity to gifts welling up unbidden, this awareness of the fate of the community, no matter how ego-driven or self-absorbed a writer or artist might become, and no matter how singular the work, that divides art from commerce.

In traditional communities all over the world, this ethic of communal reciprocity, in my experience, is what separates acts of selfishness from the work of leadership. The role of the artist, in part, is to develop the conversations, the stories, the drawings, the films, the music—the expressions of awe and wonder and mystery—that remind us, especially in our worst times, of what is still possible, of what we haven’t yet imagined. And it is by looking to one another, by attending to the responsibilities of maintaining good relations in whatever we do, that communities turn a gathering darkness into light.

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