A Conversation on Craft with Ursula K. Le Guin
David Naimon | March/April 2017
Ursula K. Le Guin
It would be hard to overstate the accomplishments of Ursula K. Le Guin, nor their influence upon and importance to the world of literature at large. Le Guin is the author of more than sixty books of fiction, fantasy, children’s literature, poetry, drama, criticism, and translation. Her countless awards include a National Book Award, a Pen/Malamud Award, six Nebulas, five Hugos, and twenty-one Locus Awards (from her 1973 Lathe of Heaven to her 2010 Cheek by Jowl, the most Locus Awards by any writer to date). In 2000, the Library of Congress named Le Guin a Living Legend for her significant contributions to America’s cultural heritage, and in 2014, Le Guin was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation, whose past winners include Toni Morrison, John Ashbery, and Joan Didion. Le Guin’s books, their unique blend of sociology, psychology, and anthropology, have always been politically and morally engaged works, from the gender fluid world of 1969’s Left Hand of Darkness to her retelling of Virgil’s Aeneid from the perspective of a nearly voiceless female character in her 2008 novel Lavinia.
Le Guin is also active and figures prominently in the community of writers in the world. She is one of the founding members of Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon (along with William Stafford and Brian Booth) and writers from Neil Gaiman to Zadie Smith, David Mitchell to Salman Rushdie have cited Le Guin as a major influence on their work. In 2008, Occupy Oakland activists fashioned shields to appear like the cover of her anarchist utopian classic The Dispossessed. In 2009, Le Guin publicly resigned from the Author’s Guild to protest their settlement with Google, getting hundreds of authors to join her in petitioning a federal judge to exempt the US from the settlement that would allow Google to digitize books with disregard of copyright. And most recently, in 2014, in what has been characterized as the most ferocious speech in National Book Foundation history, Le Guin used her acceptance speech for the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to lambast the deepening corporatization and commodification of books and their authors by the likes of Amazon. Le Guin’s thoughtful, principled, and progressive insights are also evident in her approach to teaching the craft of writing. Her 1998 classic, Steering the Craft, has been revised and rewritten. This new edition, Steering the Craft, a 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, has been hailed as a book that deserves to have a place on every writer’s shelf. In their starred review, Library Journal called it a must-read for intermediate and advanced writers of fiction and memoir.
David Naimon: The original 1998 edition of Steering the Craft is a classic book on the craft of writing and has remained popular year after year. Nevertheless, after ten years you felt enough had changed in the publishing and writing world that you decided to revise and rewrite the book. Tell us about the changes you observed that prompted this decision.
Ursula K. Le Guin: Well, it’s the same book, but every single sentence was rewritten. Part of it was that I was ten to twelve years older, and looking back on some of the things I’d said I thought, “That isn’t quite right, I can say that better.” I also had received feedback about the writing exercises from writers who used the book. And during that time there was the revolution that has overturned publishing as it existed. We’re all out at sea now, not knowing what’s going to happen next. Some of the old advice that one always gave to young writers is no good anymore. When steering one’s craft these days, nobody quite knows where they’re going, including the publishers.
Naimon: You say at the beginning of Steering the Craft that it’s a handbook for storytellers but you also make clear that it isn’t geared toward the beginning storyteller but rather toward people who are already engaged at working on their craft with some dedication. What distinguishes it as a craft book for this audience?
Le Guin: For one thing, it simply doesn’t give the “you too can write!” sort of encouragement. It grew out of a workshop, and the people in that workshop were already committed writers. Many hadn’t published yet, but that’s not the point. It’s the commitment that counts. I assume that commitment in the book: that you’re interested not so much in being “a success” as a writer, but being “a writer,” as in writing well—telling your story the best you can—committing yourself to your writing, your art.
Naimon: One of the things that I find really interesting about the book is that you don’t shy away from using imitation as a way to learn to write. Of course, imitation is very commonly used in other artistic pursuits—painting, dancing, music, etc. Imitation is crucial to honing one’s craft and finding one’s voice in other arts but it is something that writers have traditionally been a little troubled by.
Le Guin: Maybe not traditionally, but more recently, yes. In the arts, imitation has to be understood by the person doing it as a learning device; otherwise it’s plagiarism. You imitate only to learn, and you don’t publish it. Or if you do, you say, “this is an imitation of Hemingway.” But the internet and competition in college tend to blur the distinction between imitation and plagiarism, and this blurriness leads teachers to warn people not to imitate—and that’s foolish. You have to learn by reading good stuff and trying to write that way. If a piano player never heard any other piano player, how would he know what to do? We’re not using imitation as it could be used, I think.
Naimon: You open the book with the importance of sound. The sound of language, you say, is where it all begins, and that language at its core is a physical thing.
Le Guin: I hear what I write. I started writing poetry when I was really young. I always heard it in my head. I realized that a lot of people who write about writing don’t seem to hear it, don’t listen to it, their perception is more theoretical and intellectual. But if it’s happening in your body, if you are hearing what you write, then you can listen for the right cadence, which will help the sentence run clear. And what young writers always talk about—“finding your voice”—well, you can’t find your own voice if you aren’t listening for it. The sound of your writing is an essential part of what it’s doing. Our teaching of writing tends to ignore it, except maybe in poetry. And so we get prose that goes clunk, clunk, clunk. And we don’t know what’s wrong with it.
To assume that the present tense is literally “now” and the past tense literally remote in time is extremely naïve.
Naimon: You have this wonderful quote from your talk at Literary Arts & Lectures in 2000: “Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention, beneath words, there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move; the writer’s job is to go down deep enough to feel that rhythm and let it move memory and imagination to find the words.”
Le Guin: That is something that I learned from Virginia Woolf, who talks about it most wonderfully in a letter to her friend Vita. Style, she says, is rhythm—“the wave in the mind”—the wave, the rhythm are there before the words, and bring the words to fit it.
Naimon: You cite Woolf in Steering the Craft as perhaps the best example of the use of rhythm.
Le Guin: She’s an amazing example of the use of a long and subtle rhythm in prose. But there are many, many others. I wrote an essay about the rhythm of Tolkien’s writing in The Lord of the Rings. Short rhythms repeated form long rhythms; there’s a cyclical repetition in his work, which I think is part of why it totally enchants so many of us. We are caught in this rhythm and are happy there.
Naimon: Another aspect of Steering the Craft that seems particularly unique is your emphasis on the importance of knowing grammar and grammar terminology while also interrogating the rules of grammar at the same time. You point out that it is a strange phenomenon that grammar is the tool of our trade and yet so many writers steer away from an engagement with it.
Le Guin: In my generation and for a while after (I was born in 1929) we were taught grammar right from the start. It was quietly drilled into us. We knew the names of the parts of speech, we had a working acquaintance with how English works, which they don’t get in most schools any more. There is so much less reading in schools, and very little teaching of grammar. For a writer, this is kind of like being thrown into a carpenter’s shop without ever having learned the names of the tools or handled them consciously. What do you do with a Phillips screwdriver? What is a Phillips screwdriver? We’re not equipping people to write, we’re just saying “you too can write!” or “anybody can write, just sit down and do it!” But to make anything, you’ve got to have the tools to make it.
Naimon: You talk about the usefulness of diagramming sentences, that by diagramming them you discover that sentences have skeletons…
Le Guin: I wasn’t taught that in school—that was the previous generation. My mother and my great-aunt could diagram a sentence, and they showed me how. I enjoyed it; for anyone who has that kind of mind, it’s illuminating. It’s kind of like drawing the skeleton of a horse. You go: “Oh, that’s how they hang together!”
Naimon: It’s interesting to think that if sentences have skeletons then different sentences are, in a sense, different animals. This would bring us back to rhythm, as they would all have a different rhythm, a different sound because they would walk differently.
Le Guin: A different gait, right. Although all the sentences in a piece would also be following a certain underlying, integrating rhythm.
Naimon: Every so often in Steering the Craft you have an opinion piece and one of my favorites is about morality and grammar. You talk about how morality and language are linked but that morality and correctness are not the same thing and yet we often confuse them in the realm of grammar.
I think the authorial point of view, because it allows such shifting, is the most flexible and useful of all the points of view. It’s the freest.
Le Guin: The “grammar bullies”—you read them in places like the New York Times, and they tell you what is correct. You must never use “hopefully.” “Hopefully, we will be going there on Tuesday.” That is incorrect and wrong and you are basically an ignorant pig if you say it. This is judgementalism. The game that is being played there is a game of social class. It has nothing to do with the morality of writing and speaking and thinking clearly, which Orwell for instance talked about so well. It’s just affirming that I am from a higher class than you are. The trouble is that people who aren’t taught grammar very well in school fall for these statements from these pundits, delivered with vast authority from above. I’m fighting that. A very interesting case in point is using “they” as a singular. This offends the grammar bullies endlessly, it is wrong, wrong, wrong! Well, it was right until the 18th century, when they invented the rule that He includes She. It didn’t exist in English before then. Shakespeare used “they” instead of “he or she”—we all do, we always have done, in speaking, in colloquial English. It took the women’s movement to bring it back to English literature. And it is important. Because it’s a crossroads between correctness bullying and the moral use of language. If “he” includes “she” but “she” doesn’t include “he,” a big statement is being made, with huge social and moral implications. But we don’t have to use “he” that way—we’ve got “they.” Why not use it?
Naimon: This difference between grammatical correctness and the ways language engages moral questions reminds me of this quote of yours: “We can’t restructure society without restructuring the English language.” That the battle is essentially as much at the sentence level as it is in the world.
Le Guin: As a freshman in college I read George Orwell’s great essay about how writing English clearly is a political matter. It went really deep into me. Often I’m simply rephrasing Orwell.
Naimon: It’s reflected in your work as well. I think of your novel The Dispossessed, about an anarchist utopia. There is no property in this imagined world and there are also no possessive pronouns. The world and the language of the world are reflecting back upon each other.
Le Guin: The founders of this anarchist society made up a new language because they realized you couldn’t have a new society and an old language. They based the new language on the old one but changed it enormously. It’s simply an illustration of what Orwell was saying.
Naimon: You call lots of these rules of grammatical correctness that reflect some regressive tendencies in society, “fake rules.” On the one hand, Steering the Craft not only talks about the importance of engaging with our tools, understanding the power of punctuation, and understanding grammar, but also to be careful not to fall for these fake rules. One of them is, as you just mentioned, the generic pronoun “he” to refer to both men and women, what amounts to an erasure of women at the sentence level. Is it true that you’ve said that if you could rewrite Left Hand of Darkness, a book about gender fluidity, you would make some changes like this on the sentence level?
Le Guin: Obviously it is unsatisfactory to call these genderless people “he” throughout the book, as I do (unless one of them goes into kemmer and gains gender, becomes genuinely if temporarily “he” or “she”). In 1968, “they” was simply not an option; no editor would have published the book. Soon after the book was written several novels came out using made-up pronouns to blur gender, but I couldn’t do it; I can’t do that to English. So what to do? I rewrote a chapter of Left Hand of Darkness making everybody “she” instead of “he,” and it is interesting to read it after having read the “he” version. But it’s not right either. They aren’t “she.” They’re “they.” And we can’t use “it.” I envy the Finnish, and I think the Japanese at least in some respects, that they can speak genderlessly.
Naimon: Just as you’ve pointed out the erasure of women at the sentence level you’ve also voiced concerns about the ways in which women writers are made to disappear from the conversation, particularly when it comes to entering or not entering the canon. I think in one conversation someone asked you for examples and you mentioned Grace Paley as someone sliding out of the conversation.
Le Guin: I fear for Grace’s reputation because it happens so often that a woman writer, very much admired but not bestseller famous, however admired by many critics, just slides out of sight after her death…and the place is filled by a man. Well, no man could possibly fill Grace Paley’s place. She wrote extraordinarily as a woman. And that may be part of the problem.
Naimon: When I interviewed Jo Walton, we engaged this question as well. She said it was often difficult in any given moment or instance to know whether sexism was happening but if you stepped back and looked at the way the canon was being formed, in this case we were talking about the canon in science fiction and fantasy, it becomes clearer. She brought up the example of William Gibson. Neuromancer won the Hugo and many other awards and around the same time CJ Cherryh also won the Hugo and seemed to be informing the conversation-at-large like Gibson. She went on to win the Hugo again six or seven years later, and seemed to be just as successful. But now, years later, you look back and Gibson is in the canon and there are a lot of people who have never even heard of CJ Cherryh.
Le Guin: That’s true. Why hasn’t she been reprinted? Why isn’t she talked about? There’s something slightly mysterious about this. What is misogyny? A male need to establish a male world? But it is a mystery—I can’t take it any further.
Naimon: You’ve been an outspoken critic of the increasing commodification of authors and how sales departments are taking over from editorial. That a lot of the choices that influence how a book is being shaped are less about art and more about commerce. It feels like Steering the Craft subtly pushes back against this in the sense that it expands the way in which literature can be viewed, not just in terms of what’s in vogue. You try to expand the conversation beyond popular contemporary choices like present tense and very short sentences. You both look at the limitations of these choices, and also present many examples from the long history of other choices.
Le Guin: There are advantages and disadvantages to living a very long time, as I have. One of the advantages is that you can’t help having a long view. You’ve seen it come and seen it go. Something that’s being announced as the absolute only way to write, you recognize as a fashion, a fad, trendy—the way to write right now if you want to sell right now to a right now editor. But there’s also the long run to consider. Nothing’s deader than last year’s trend. My book aims for the long run, rather than short-term instant salability.
Naimon: I really loved your discussion of the costs vs. the benefits, the trade-off when choosing past or present tense. You talked about how past tense allows for more ready movement back and forth in time, that it more closely mimics the ways our minds and memories work.
Le Guin: And it is particularly connected to telling a big story, a story with some real depth. Tense usage is one of the issues in the first edition of Steering the Craft that I most wanted to rewrite. In the first edition, I sounded off about it and was a bit snarky. But it is a complicated issue. Obviously the present tense has certain uses that it’s wonderfully suited for. But recently it has been adopted blindly, as the only way to tell a story—often by young writers who haven’t read very much. Well, it’s a good way to tell some stories, not a good way to tell others. It’s inherently limiting. I call it flashlight focus. You see a spot ahead of you and it is dark all around it. That’s great for high suspense, high drama, cut-to-the-chase writing. But if you want to tell a big, long story, like the books of Elena Ferrante, or Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years, which moves year by year from 1920 to 2020—the present tense would cripple those books. To assume that the present tense is literally “now” and the past tense literally remote in time is extremely naïve.
Naimon: I would definitely encourage writers to look at your book reviews to see your thoughts on craft in context, in direct engagement with a specific piece of art. For instance, in your review of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks for The Guardian, you discuss this issue of present tense. It’s a great review. You compare Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness to what you call Mitchell’s “stream of self-consciousness.” And you also bring up some of these issues around time. Here is what you said: “Here, in a novel deeply concerned with Time, there is virtually no past tense. Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense, but at this great length it can be hard going. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step—now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.” That seems so wonderfully put.
Le Guin: Good. David Mitchell is a writer worth writing about.
A fear of using the imagination is very deep in America. It shows in our schools, where apparently kids read less and less and less fiction.
Naimon: Let’s talk about point of view. The choice of first-person point of view is more popular today than ever. You walk us through the history of first-person POV in Steering the Craft, how first person was mainly found in medieval diaries and saints’ confessions and then in Montaigne’s essays, and was not a big part of our literature until recently.
Le Guin: Third-person limited is very similar to first person in that it is one point of view only. One or the other of those two do seem to be, over and over, the only point of view used in contemporary fiction.
Naimon: But it is actually pretty late in the history of literature that both these points of view arise.
Le Guin: Henry James did the limited third-person really well, showing us the way to do it. He milked that cow successfully. And it’s a great cow, it still gives lots of milk. But if you read only contemporary stuff, always third-person limited, you don’t realize that point of view in a story is very important and can be very moveable. It’s here where I suggest that people read books like Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to see what she does by moving from mind to mind. Or Tolstoy’s War and Peace for goodness’ sake. Wow. The way he slides from one point of view to another without you knowing that you’ve changed point of view—he does it so gracefully. You know where you are, whose eyes you are seeing through, but you don’t have the sense of being jerked from place to place. That’s mastery of a craft.
Naimon: And Steering the Craft puts forth omniscient point of view as a legitimate choice for contemporary writing.
Le Guin: Any of us who grew up reading 18th- or 19th-century fiction are perfectly at home with what is called “omniscience.” I myself call it “authorial” point of view because the term “omniscience,” the idea of an author being omniscient, is so often used in a judgmental way, as if it were a bad thing. But the author after all is the author of all these characters, the maker, the inventor of them. In fact, all the characters are the author if you come right down to the honest truth of it. So the author has the perfect right to know what they’re thinking. If the author doesn’t tell you what they are thinking… why? This is worth thinking about. Often it’s simply to spin out suspense by not telling you what the author knows. Well, that’s legitimate. This is art. But I’m trying to get people to think about their choices here, because there are so many beautiful choices that are going unused. In a way, first person and limited third are the easiest ones, the least interesting.
Naimon: You’ve mentioned that in writing workshops the most common mistake you’ve seen is what you call “inconsistent point of view.”
Le Guin: That’s when you shift from one person’s mind to another, the way Tolstoy and Woolf do so splendidly, but you do it awkwardly or you do it without knowing you are doing it. The thing about point of view is awareness. Changing it requires intense awareness and a certain amount of practice and skill in the shifting. Successful shifting gives binocular or more than binocular vision. Instead of a single view of an event, you do what Rashomon does, offer multiple perspectives, but without having to retell the story multiple times as Rashomon does. You can do it as you tell the story, and the multiple points of view lead to greater puzzlement or greater clarity about what is going on, depending upon what you want. I think the authorial point of view, because it allows such shifting, is the most flexible and useful of all the points of view. It’s the freest.
Naimon: It wasn’t until reading Steering the Craft that I realized just how experimental Charles Dickens’s Bleak House was. You discuss it, not necessarily as a text to emulate, but to show some of the radical choices he made both in terms of how he alternates point of view and also how he alternates tense.
Le Guin: Half the book is written in the present tense, very unusual in that period. And those are the passages written in the authorial point of view—an almost eagle-eye view, rare at any time. It’s an extraordinary book.
Naimon: At one point in Steering the Craft you say that modernist writing manuals often conflate story with conflict. What do you mean by this?
Le Guin: Well, to preach that story is conflict, always to ask “where’s the conflict in your story?”—this needs some thinking about. If you say that story is about conflict, that plot must be based on conflict, you’re limiting your view of the world severely. And in a sense making a political statement: that life is conflict, so in stories conflict is all that really matters. This is simply untrue. To see life as a battle is a narrow, Social-Darwinist view, and a very masculine one. Conflict, of course, is part of life, I’m not saying you should try to keep it out of your stories, just that it’s not their only lifeblood. Stories are about a lot of different things.
Naimon: It’s amazing how quickly we fall into battle metaphors in common speech when speaking about almost anything.
Le Guin: I do try to avoid saying “the fight” for such and such, “the war” against such and such. I resist putting everything into terms of conflict and immediate violent resolution. I don’t think that existence works that way. I’m trying to remember what Lao Tzu says about conflict. He limits it to the battlefield, where it belongs. To limit all human behavior to conflict is to leave out vast, rich areas of human experience.
Naimon: You raise this issue in your otherwise very positive review of the latest novel by Salman Rushdie. Your concern that the dark jinni in the book, the force of destruction, is inextricably linked to the creative impulse in a way that gave you pause.
Le Guin: Yes: at the very end of the book there is a suggestion that if we aren’t forever at war we will be peaceable and boring and dull and not do anything worth doing. All I can say is that’s not my experience of war and peace. I was a kid during the Second World War. All-out war is not a period where creativity gets much play. Coming out of that war was like coming out of a very dark place into an open world where you could think and do something other than war, the war effort, fighting. Where there was room for creation, not just destruction.
Naimon: You’ve been a strong voice behind the idea that science fiction and fantasy are as much literature as realist or mimetic fiction and memoir. At one time you even said “fake realism is the escapism of our time.” You describe a long uninterrupted lineage for fantasy back to the Mahabharata and Beowulf.
Le Guin: I was just trying to point out that possibly the oldest form of literature is fantastic. It begins in myths and legends, and in hero stories that become mythologized, like The Odyssey. But I think the exclusion of genre writing from literature is in the past now. It’s hard for me to stop talking in those terms, though, because I had to keep arguing for so long that genre is literature just as much as The Grapes of Wrath is. Of course, most of it isn’t as good—but most realism isn’t as good as The Grapes of Wrath either. Judgment by genre is just wrong—stupid, wasteful. Most people know that now.
Naimon: So that 1970s article you wrote, “Why Americans Are Afraid of Dragons,” maybe we are coming to terms with dragons in America a little bit now?
Le Guin: Yes and no. That’s a wider thing than the genre/literature argument. A fear of using the imagination is very deep in America. It shows in our schools, where apparently kids read less and less and less fiction. And do they get any poetry at all any more? How does our education train and exercise the imagination? Well, I don’t know, so I shouldn’t talk about it.
Naimon: Steering the Craft engages this conversation and complicates it in a good way I think. In the book you omnivorously quote from Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain and Charles Dickens but also from Margaret Atwood and J.R.R. Tolkien and even from native tales, like the story of the Thunder Badger, as examples of different techniques. You fluidly move between these worlds, which you can also see in your own fiction, these varied influences. But it feels like you are making a quiet statement in the craft book that all of these are literature.
Le Guin: Absolutely. In a recent online workshop in narrative fiction at Book View Café, I found that over and over again I want to send people to read Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories, for his long sentences, or for his descriptions. If you want to see how to write a sea battle, go to O’Brian. He is an incredibly good action writer. But how does he do it? He’s certainly worth studying. Within genre you can find marvelous examples of writing.
Naimon: You have been very interested in Taoism and Buddhism over the years and translated your own version of the Tao Te Ching. How do you see that influencing your writing? Are you able to articulate a way in which you feel those are influencing story?
Le Guin: It goes so deep that it is hard for me to articulate. I’m not good at analyzing my own writing. The Lathe of Heaven is an obvious example of using a Taoist approach to life. Though I didn’t use the I-Ching to write the book, the way Philip K. Dick did to write The Man in the High Castle, the movement is continuous change, and in Lathe it happens through dreams. So you never quite know if it is a dream or if it is real. That is my book where the Asian influence is most clearly on the surface. But that sense that everything is always moving and changing—well, if you ask me what story is about, it’s about change.
Naimon: I may be reading too much into this quote of yours, but this felt like it evoked something about Buddhist philosophy with regards to the relationship of self to art. You say: “Some people see art as a matter of control. I see it mostly as a matter of self-control. It’s like this, in me there’s a story that wants to be told. It is my end. I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way, and find the focus of the story, and follow the story, the story will tell itself…” This feels like a very different approach to story than one of willfulness to put something down on the page.
Le Guin: Yes, that’s fairly Taoistic. That is wu wei or doing by not doing. It seems very passive. Of course, Lao Tzu strikes the Western conflict-oriented mind as incredibly passive. “Don’t do something, just sit there.” That’s where he is so tricky and so useful. There are many different ways of just sitting there.
Nobody has much solid advice to give anybody at this point. We’re in a revolution.
Naimon: You have exercises with each chapter and they all have great names like “Chastity,” “The Expository Lump,” and “Crowding and Leaping.” Do you have a favorite?
Le Guin: As I say in the book, “Chastity” was one I invented when I was fourteen, when I realized that my attempts to write stories weren’t exactly flowery, but had too many words, too many adjectives and adverbs. So I deliberately tried to write a whole page of narrative without any adjectives or adverbs at all. It gets very tough, because essential words like “only” and “then” are adverbial. So sometimes you can’t cut them all out. But you can certainly cut out all the “-ly” words, and all the rich juicy adjectives. You end up with a chaste, plain piece of prose. And because you have to put all that energy into the verbs and the nouns instead, it is stronger and richer. “Chastity” is an exercise I’ve used in almost every workshop I’ve ever taught. And people hate it! But they don’t hate it as bad as the last exercise, “A Terrible Thing to Do,” where you take a piece of your own writing and cut it in half, saying the same things in half as many words.
Naimon: You mentioned that you recently started an online engagement with aspiring writers. I wonder if your own personal biography might also be a source of inspiration for people reading Steering the Craft and trying to find their feet as writers. It took you quite a while at the beginning, of writing and submitting, before you saw any tangible success. Can you talk about that period, how long it was, what you were doing etc.
Le Guin: In doing this workshop it seems to be useful for me, now at the end of my career, to tell people some of what I went through. It feels sort of egoistic, but it may be of some real interest and value to them to know of the setbacks and awful self-doubts that I think most writers go through. More than most artists, maybe because they work so much in solitude, writers tend to self-doubt. And getting published is a formidable barrier. Starting out, I was able to place a poem every now and then—in one of the little tiny poetry magazines—eight or nine readers—but at least I was in print. But I couldn’t sell any fiction. For six or seven years I was methodically writing short stories and novels, trying to place them, and getting nowhere. Got lots of nice rejection slips.
The fact is, I was committed to being a writer, to my writing, and I had a self-confidence or arrogance that carried me through. “I am going to do it, and I’m going to do it my way.” I stuck to that. And bang, I finally broke through. I sold two stories in one week, one to a commercial magazine and one to a little literary magazine. Once the door cracks open, it seems to stay open. It’s easier to know where to submit your work. My stories often weren’t conventionally realistic, but had some nonrealistic twist, and I realized that fantasy and science fiction magazines could read them and not say, “What is this?” There was an open mind there that I hadn’t met in the conventional markets. After this breakthrough, slowly but fairly steadily, I began to get the breaks.
Of course, until I had an agent, I faithfully submitted my work, which is hard work.
And this is the area I’m not sure I know how to talk about now—it’s so different, with the internet, e-publication, self-publication. About self-publication, for instance, I can’t even say I’m of two minds. I’m just trying to figure out what it really involves and where it really gets you as a writer. If you self-publish without any network of publicity, any way to make your work known, and if you don’t choose to sell yourself to advertisers—? I just don’t know. I don’t know. It’s wonderful to see your work in print, goodness knows, but how much good is that if nobody’s reading it outside your peer group and your relatives? I don’t know. Nobody has much solid advice to give anybody at this point. We’re in a revolution. We can only try to figure out how publishing is going to settle down after the revolution. And it will.
David Naimon hosts the literary radio program Between the Covers—KBOO 90.7FM (tinyurl.com/btcpodcast). His work has appeared in many literary journals, and he has won a 2016 Pushcart Prize Special Mention, a 2015 Best American Essays Notable, a 2015 Best American Travel Writing Notable, and a Tin House Writers Workshop fellowship.
Excerpt from Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.
Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sounds of language. Others “outgrow” their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.
A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear. We mostly read prose in silence, but many readers have a keen inner ear that hears it. Dull, choppy, droning, jerky, feeble: these common criticisms of narrative are all faults in the sound of it. Lively, well-paced, flowing, strong, beautiful: these are all qualities of the sound of prose, and we rejoice in them as we read. Narrative writers need to train their mind’s ear to listen to their own prose, to hear as they write.
The chief duty of a narrative sentence is to lead to the next sentence—to keep the story going. Forward movement, pace, and rhythm are words that are going to return often in this book. Pace and movement depend above all on rhythm, and the primary way you feel and control the rhythm of your prose is by hearing it—by listening to it.
Excerpted from Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright ©1998 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Used by permission of Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.