“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


Writing Advice from John Grisham

So. A few days ago my friend Mark (check out his blog: makinghismark) turned me on to a recent NPR interview with John Grisham. In my friend’s words, “it’s motivating.” See, Mark and I are both aspiring fiction writers, so when he described the interview, I knew it was something I had to check out.

Grisham was on NPR promoting his new novel, “Camino Island.” I’ve read a number Grisham’s legal thrillers over the years, but when I think about writing advice, Grisham’s name isn’t really the first jumping to mind. But of course, since he’s an incredibly successful writer, anything he has to say on the matter is relevant to aspiring novelists like me.

There were two points during the interview where Grisham’s words stood out to me. NPR’s host Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Grisham about his thoughts on the current state of the “book world” as she put it. Grisham voiced his concerns, but transitioned to another point that really interested me. He said:

And I tell writers who are trying to get published, you know, it’s sort of discouraging. I got discouraged, you know, 30 years ago when I’d walk into a bookstore and see all – the wall full of these big, beautiful, brand-new best-sellers on The New York Times list and I would say, good gosh, who wants to hear from me? And I would get discouraged by that. But every year, you know, several hundred first-time novelists are going to be published. And publishing needs the new talent every year. Publishing needs a new best-selling author every year.

I found this fascinating. It’s hard to believe an author whose sold almost 300 million copies of his work would ever be discouraged, but sure enough, he was at the start. He paints a picture I see myself in all the time. (Literally every time I walk into a bookstore.) After hearing this, I discovered Grisham’s first novel, “A Time to Kill,” was rejected by 28 publishers before being picked up for a modest printing run by an unknown, small publishing house that went bankrupt a year later.

Grisham’s declaration that “publishing needs new talent every year” is incredibly encouraging. And it makes sense. We need new voices. Sure, any bookstore will sport a wall of best-sellers, but there will always be room for more. There will be room for my work.

It’s toward the end of the interview when Grisham provides his best advice for writers. He said:

I tell students, people who are trying to write, there’s, you know, certain tips that – I guess we, you know, call them tips, suggestions, do’s, don’ts, whatever.

But you’ve got to find somebody who loves you, who can read your stuff and be critical, and somebody who really wants you to succeed. It can be a teacher, a parent, a spouse or girlfriend, boyfriend, whatever, somebody who’s on your side but who can be very honest with you. And that’s – you’ve got to have a sounding board.

This piece of advice articulates an important part of the writing process. Grisham’s “sounding board,” as he described it, is his wife, who he revealed “reads everything before anybody else does.”

Finding a reliable sounding board provides a writer with an outlet to collect important feedback. Some people might hesitate to share their work, but it’s vital for writers to understand how their work is being received. It’s during the revision stage where a writer can take that feedback and make necessary adjustments to their stories.

While I work toward my goal of being a published novelist, I will continue to heed the advice of successful writers like John Grisham. I will try to avoid discouragement and I will search for sounding boards to help me improve my work so that one day I can walk into a bookstore and see my novel on the wall full of big, beautiful, brand-new best-sellers on The New York Times list.

Here’s a link to purchase “Camino Island” from Books & Books, the locally-owned, independently-minded neighborhood bookstore with five locations in South Florida. Books & Books serves as a community center for writers and readers, hosting 60 author events a month.