“I would ask you to remember only this one thing,” said Badger. “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves. One day you will be good story-tellers. Never forget these obligations.” -From Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez

I recently encountered this quote by writer Barry Lopez, and the words lingered with me long after I flitted away from the computer, perhaps because the passage echoed another reading experience. The night before I had finished a novel by Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake, and at the end I marveled at Atwood’s ability to tell a great tale—one that is not only well-crafted, but matters in these days and times. In Atwood’s post-apocalyptic world and in the midst of the protagonist Jimmy’s unending search for food and survival, he resorts to inventing a myth to explain the circumstances of what’s happened to the survivors who lack the ability to understand. And the reader senses, in such a hopeless, ravaged situation, how Jimmy needs the story almost as much as his listeners. “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive,” Lopez writes. Quite often that person is the listener in the auditorium, the reader on his couch. But sometimes that person is the writer herself.

What does the obligation to be a good story-teller mean, if the obligation to care for ourselves is two-fold—for the writer and for the audience, both? I write because I have to explore and understand the world around me; it is a way of being and as essential as food or drink. Thus the obligation to which Lopez refers is to serve myself in addition to my readers—even before them. This has led me to seek opportunities that feed the habit of writing alongside the refinement of craft. I spent much of 2008 traveling and writing in Latin America and from this experience mined rich material for exploration: an expatriate American woman’s search to find her dogs stolen by bandidos; the unlikely reappearance of Jesus on a remote surfing beach.

I need look no further to answer the question of how to care for stories: my best writing has emerged from the windows of time when I could plunge into a fictional world without the distraction of the job-juggle, one eye on the page and the other on the stack of portfolios to grade. Increasingly, my best writing arises when I can enter that imaginative world completely, for hours and days at a time if necessary, with the studious leisure at hand to pull an anthology from the shelf and hunt for a tale that might serve as a magical realist model, or to converse with one of my close reader/editor friends for an hour as we both scrutinize scenes from each other’s work. There are two obligations of a good story-teller—to serve the craft of writing and to also serve the question of what matters to herself and to her fellow human beings. If the care required is time and space in which to sharpen craft skills among a like-minded group of practicing artists, write, revise, and write, and read literary works with a pencil, then the writer must seek out that opportunity; if the care is taking a long walk in an effort to face what really needs to be written, what the writer needs to discover for herself, then the writer must seek out that, too. Both are essential to the creation of ever-lasting work which arises from and explores the meaning and mysteriousness of life.

My goals in the decades ahead are to write as much as possible and continue to improve my skills, in short fiction and also the novel form, and bring my work to the highest literary quality possible. I am interested in how the use of imagery and rhetorical devices bring resonance and unity to fiction, how authors have employed this successfully in their works and to what effect. I enjoy flexing my writerly muscles by trying different styles and types of stories—historical, magical realist, speculative, etc. In both forms, character development and pacing pose the greatest challenge; I am endlessly fascinated with unlocking the protagonist’s yearning and the why of the story.

But I also hope to sink deeper into my habit of being a writer, to grow in generosity of spirit among my fellow writers as much as in the sense of employing skill-set and producing an award-winning manuscript. I hope to care for the stories of my fellow writers as much as my own, and in doing so, nurture the eternal literary conversation of which we are all a part. I look forward to spending years immersed in the community of practicing writers who are striving to make great art and learning from each other as well as from the masters who’ve come before us. Discussing and exchanging manuscripts will comprise a great part of my future. And I hope to create a body of stories that will one day mirror the depth and breadth of Margaret Atwood’s, but also with the wisdom of how to, as Barry Lopez states, “give them away where they are needed.”

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