Writing advice from Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination as a collection is something of a hodgepodge, but there are many valuable nuggets to be mined, so it’s a worthwhile book for any aspiring writer to consult from time to time. The personal essays in the first section, “Personal Matters,” are especially worth reading because Le Guin is a terrific writer and an interesting person. Other essays throughout the book, particularly Le Guin’s thoughts on gender, are also interesting. Do what I did–leaf through the book and read what catches your fancy. It’s sure to be worth your while.

The final section deals specifically with writing and contains several terrific insights. As ever, most writing advice generally comprises the same few basics dressed up in different ways. What stands out is when the adviser frames this in a different way guaranteed to light some bulbs over some heads, and I think Le Guin achieves this. Here are some specific insights I gleaned from different essays, but I recommend reading them for yourself.

“A War Without End” is a rather long and rambling piece on the power of story to make change imaginable and is worth reading to remember why we read and why we write. Here’s a snippet:

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.

Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller.

In “A Matter of Trust,” Le Guin explains that in order to write a story, you must trust first yourself, then the story, and finally the reader. The only way to build trust in yourself as a writer is to — you guessed it — write, write write. Commit yourself to learning the craft.

Trusting the story means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. In order for this to work, a pre-writing stage of semi-conscious gestation and/or conscious planning is required. Don’t rush to the writing–that won’t work. (This idea is fleshed out in a subsequent essay.)

Once the writing is done, you must again trust yourself to make the story better. You must be willing to go over it until it goes right. This means revision, people! Dull drudgery, I know, but absolutely necessary. Only after careful and deliberate revision, Le Guin says, will you know what the story is about and why it had to go the way it went. Trusting the story also means that you can’t conceive or manipulate the story to serve a purpose outside itself, because then it will not be true. (This is also expanded on in a later essay.)

Finally, trust the reader. This means thinking of the reader as an active, intelligent, worthy collaborator. Think of the story as a dance, and the writer and reader as partners in it. Revision — again! — clears unnecessary obstacles away so the reader can receive the story. Le Guin is talking about respect here, and as a reader, I completely agree. A lazy writer, a sloppy writer, a didactic writer is a disrespectful writer, and there is no reason why any reader should have to engage with that kind of writing.

In “The Writer and the Character,” Le Guin warns both writers and readers that characters are not stand-ins for the writer. If you are using your character to fulfill your own needs or to trumpet your own ideas, they can’t be themselves and they can’t tell the truth. They will be puppets, and readers will recognize them as such. If the author’s point of view exactly coincides with the character’s, then the story is not fiction; rather, it is “disguised memoir or a fiction-coated sermon.”

“Unquestioned Assumptions” is a terrific essay that discusses the biases inherent in writing, in which the writer assumes that “us” is “everybody.” In other words, we are all men, we are all white, we are all straight, we are all Christian, we are all young. Le Guin gives this advice:

All I would ask of writers who find it hard to question the universal validity of their personal opinions and affiliations is that they consider this: Every group we belong to–by gender, sex, race, religion, age–is an in-group, surrounded by an immense out-group, living next door and all over the world, who will be alive as far into the future as humanity has a future. That out-group is called other people. It is for them that we write.

Finally, “The Question I Get Asked Most Often,” is of course about the secret that all successful writers must know:

The question fiction writers get asked most often is: Where do you get your ideas from? Harlan Ellison has been saying for years that he gets ideas for his stories from a mail-order house in Schenectady.

When people ask “Where do you get your ideas from?” what some of them really want to know is the e-mail address of that company in Schenectady.

That is: they want to be writers, because they know writers are rich and famous; and they know that there are secrets that writers know; and they know if they can just learn those secrets, that mystical address in Schenectady, they will be Stephen King.

Here is the secret, as Le Guin reveals it:

For a fiction writer, a storyteller, the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there, and you just reach up and pick it.

Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.

“Ideas come from the world through the head,” she says. Fiction is “imagination working on experience.” In other words, it’s not just enough to write what you know. You experience and read and learn a lot of things, and let it all synthesize and compost in your mind, and apply imagination to it, and that is what you write. This is not a quick process. Again, don’t be in such a rush.

Also, writers must read! A writer who doesn’t read is a charlatan. That’s because writers stand on each other’s shoulders; they use each other’s ideas, plots, and secrets. They don’t plagiarize, but they expand, adapt, react to, and comment on what has come before.

Before Le Guin can start a story, she says, she must be able to see the landscape and know the principal people by name. The story has to find its voice. Wait for it, and it will give itself to you. Writing, above all, requires patience, a willingness to sit still every day and wait.

The core of this is the same writing advice that all successful writers give: Write every day. Learn your craft and practice. Read a lot. Don’t rush it. Revise. Le Guin’s spin on this advice is thoughtful and different, and it can possibly help make that a-ha! moment happen for aspiring writers.

 

 

Writing advice, distilled…

Every writer must eventually write a book about writing. It’s some sort of unspoken rule. Due to my lifelong interest in the writing process, I’ve read a fair number of these advice manuals. (Two of my favorites are Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, because both of these books say quite a lot about reading and understanding what you read, in addition to writing.) No question that books about how to write remain popular. I guess a lot of people want to be writers, and they think these books contain the secret, that one highly guarded piece of knowledge that will finally transform the person reading the book into a by-gosh for-real writer.

Here’s the real secret: All books on writing say pretty much the same things. They use a lot of words and pages to say it, too, when all the writing advice ever given can be distilled to just a few simple rules. Hang on, I’m going to tell you what they are in just a minute.

If I had to recommend just one writing book, it would be Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s not that she imparts any great secrets either; her book says pretty much the same thing all the other writing books do. But she says it with a lot of humor and reveals a great deal of herself in the process. Her book is really more useful for providing emotional support to writers, rather than showing them how to write. I take my copy out and read random sections from it whenever I need a little boost.

Now, on to the writing secrets. These are the three rules you need to know about writing, distilled from every writing advice book ever:

  1. If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. You can’t wait to be in the mood or to have a great idea. Showing up is key, but the urge to procrastinate can be very powerful. Successful writers usually build a routine around this just to get their butts in front of the computer (or typewriter or notebook or what have you).
  2. If you want to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. The initial struggle is just to get words on paper. Those words will never be as good as you want them to be. Once the words are there, you can work with them, revise, shape, cut, rearrange, to make them better. This rule also means that your writing, like most things you do, will get better the more you practice doing it.
  3. Writers read. I will never understand why someone who doesn’t read books would want to write books. All good writers read, a lot. They read obsessively. They read widely. Reading is how you learn to write. It’s how you figure out structure, character and plot. It’s how you find ideas and techniques to “borrow,” to play with and make your own. It’s how you realize what works and what doesn’t.

By the way, these rules also apply to pretty much any creative endeavor. Just substitute the word writer for the artistic pursuit of your choice: painter, musician, dancer, cook, whatever it is.

And that’s all you really, truly need to know. I’ve just saved you a lot of money buying all those books about writing you don’t really need. No need to thank me–just promise that when you become a successful writer, you won’t write yet another book about writing.