“Don’t Shove Me in Your Damned Pigeonhole” and other Thoughts on Writing from Ursula K. Le Guin

So. We lost a literary titan on Monday, Ursula K. Le Guin, who, at 88, died at her home in Portland, Oregon. Her son confirmed the death, and while he didn’t specify a cause, he did say she’d been in poor health for months. Le Guin was an influential and immensely popular author who brought the world the Earthsea epic fantasy cycle, as well as her science-fiction opus The Left Hand of Darkness.

Le Guin was a prolific author, whose pointed use of speculative fiction helped elevate entire genres to the level of literary fiction. A trailblazer in the truest sense of the term, Le Guin thrived in an environment in which she should have failed, forced to employ genre conventions that belied her vision and voice.

Throughout her productive writing career, Le Guin spent an extraordinary amount of time teaching as well. She published a guide to the craft of writing called Steering the Craft in 1998, and she was incredibly forthcoming in interviews with the Paris Review, in an essay published in the Los Angeles Times and later on her website titled “On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy,” as well as in a blogpost called “Navigating the Ocean of Story” for BookViewCafe.com.

We could spend years analyzing her work, showing how she inspired so many of the modern literary greats like Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and Patrick Rothfuss, but today I want to take a look at five insightful thoughts she shared on writing over the years.


1. Begin with a Clear Sense of One Character

In her essay The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin argues that a novel should begin with a clear sense of one character. The best way to start?

“With a voice. With a voice in the ear. That first page I wrote, which the novel progressed from, is simply Lavinia speaking to us—including me, apparently.”   –Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

2. Our Characters Must Fascinate Us

“the characters of a novel and short story fascinate us slowly, deeply, by their passion, their pain, their moral and psychological complexity”   –Ursula Le Guin, from “On Rules of Writing”

As writers, we need to understand that it’s Character that draws us into Story. The characters provide the requisite emotional connection, which then propels us along the journey of the story. Above, Le Guin provides us with the “how” as writers to create that connection with the reader.

3. Exposition isn’t Wicked

“the fear of ‘distancing’ leads writers to abandon the narrative past tense, which involves and includes past, present, and future, for the tight-focused, inflexible present tense. But distance lends enchantment.”    –Ursula Le Guin, from “On Rules of Writing”

Here, Le Guin is lamenting the movement toward the immediacy of the present tense. The use of this tense limits the writer in her mind, and I tend to agree. She argues in the essay the “show, don’t tell” writing cliché has sent the writers in her workshops reeling away from exposition, a necessary element in world building.

As writers, we need to fully envision our worlds and our characters, and the past tense affords us the room to explore the complexities of these elements. It’s the exploration of these elements that lends enchantment to our stories.

4. Find a Rhythm

“I want the story to have a rhythm that keeps moving forward. Because that’s the whole point of telling a story. You’re on a journey–you’re going from here to there. It’s got to move. Even if the rhythm is very complicated and subtle, that’s what’s going to carry the reader.”   Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

As writers, we need to find a groove and settle in. Similarly, what we’re trying to do with our stories also requires a groove. It’s a simple idea, but it’s an archetypal one. We have a predisposition to this journey as readers and writers, and we need to embrace it.

5. You Do You

“where I can get prickly and combative is if I’m just called a sci-fi writer. I’m not. I’m a novelist and poet. Don’t shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.”   –Ursula Le Guin, from The Paris Review

Le Guin fought and overcame stereotypes throughout her career. By all accounts, she shouldn’t have been as successful as she was, being a female voice in the male-dominated world of speculative fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Her perspectives on identity and society, her deliberate treatment of race and gender, all of these things helped her breakout of the “sci-fi author” pigeonhole. And thank God she did.

As writers, we need to embrace our Voice, our perspective, and tell the stories we need to tell. We can’t worry about the labels, or pigeonholes, that we or our stories receive later. We have to be true to ourselves. And let our tentacles spread out in all directions.


Here are a few bonus thoughts from Le Guin:

  • Reading is Fundamental

“Real writers read” from “Navigating the Ocean of Story” 

  • What’s our greatest tool as writers?

“imagination working on observation” from “On Rules of Writing”

  • Get to work!

“You can’t waste time” from The Paris Review

  • Because…

“Skill is the product of experience” from “Navigating the Ocean of Story”

  • Be Who You Are!

“When people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer.”  from The Paris Review


 

Helping A Former Student

Writing

I find myself in a rut these days. It could be any number of things–the fact that I hate my job, the fact that I’m perpetually tired, just regular life getting in the way. I know what I want to do–what I want to write. I tell myself what I’m going to do–what I’m going to write. But these days, it’s not happening. It’s not happening and I’m getting madder and madder at myself.

Well, the only to break out of my rut is to write, right? Enter Eli Fernandez, a former student of mine who is currently studying at Florida State University. Eli is a talented writer in her own right, and one of the students I have fond memories of. So, when she sent me a message requesting some help with an Article and Essay Technique class. She was tasked with interacting with other writers and talk to them about writing, and she thought of me. Eli to the rescue.

I’ve decided to post the little interview here, because, well, I’m not writing anything else these days and maybe this is just the swift kick in the ass I need.

The Interview

ELI: -What made you want to start a blog?

ME: I guess the thing that sparked my interest the most is that blogging gives me the ability to share my writing on a platform that will reach readers immediately. I’ve always sought an audience beyond the small circle of eyes that had read my work in the past, and blogging seemed like the best way to do that.

ELI: -Did you ever have any doubt that people would read your blog?

ME: I doubt people will read every time I post. I hope they will read. I wonder if there’s more I could do in terms of exposing my writing to new readers, but yes, I’m perpetually doubtful.

ELI: -I saw you’re nominated for a blogger’s award! Can you tell me more about that?

ME: The blogging award was called the Versatile Blogger award. It’s this aspect of the WordPress community that allows bloggers to nominate other bloggers they enjoy reading. The benefit is a reciprocal one, the nominee writes up a post about the award and links to the nominator’s post, and as part of the post the nominee selects a number of other bloggers to nominate as well. Then those new nominees will write new posts that link back to the nominator, and so on and so forth. The draw here is the links. The more links and ping backs you get, the more your blog gets noticed. It’s all about getting read.

ELI: -What do you hope to gain from this blog? What do you hope your readers gain from this blog?

ME: My biggest hope is to build a bigger platform for my writing, and by building this bigger platform, developing a consistency to my writing that I seem to be missing. The end goal had always been to be a traditionally published fiction novelist, and blogging is simply one of the avenues I’m driving down toward that goal. For my readers, I hope to share my journey to that goal—maybe they learn something and are entertained along the way. I learn so much from the other blogs I follow that, if someone else who has similar aspirations can glean something of value from me, all the better. I guess it’s the teacher in me that thinks this way.

ELI: -What advice would you give people looking to start a blog? (I’ve been thinking about it).

ME: The biggest piece of advice I would give is something I myself need to listen to: establish a consistent schedule. Once you start, keep at it. To develop your platform and audience, you need to regularly post so that your readers know when your new work is coming. It’s the thing I struggle with the most, really. A bonus bit of advice would be to develop some kind of theme or angle to your blog. You know, make it a writing blog, or a travel blog, or a sports blog, etc., so that people know what to expect. Once you’ve developed your own style and carved out your niche, then you can dabble in different things.