Ursula K. Le Guin on Writing as Falling in Love
By Maria Popova
Whosoever has endeavored to bring into the world something substantive that hadn’t existed before — something that adds to the world’s store of truth and beauty, be it a painting or a poem or an equation — naturally comes to see that something as a “labor of love.” (I certainly couldn’t fathom an apter term as I looked back on ten years of Brain Pickings.) Labor without love dooms one to the hamster wheel of productivity, that vacant counterpoint to creativity; love without labor begets infinite procrastination, the death kiss of ideation. “Not an ‘I love you’ in the world could touch it,” Vivian Gornick wrote of the incomparable joy of consummate creative work.
No one has articulated this relationship between labor and love in creative work more elegantly than Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929) in the introduction to her Library of America tome The Complete Orsinia: Malafrena / Stories and Songs (public library).
In discussing the inception of her iconic 1979 novel Malafrena, Le Guin — one of only two living novelist included in the Library of Congress series, alongside Philip Roth — quotes a passage from her daybook, penned in November of 1978, when the novel still had the befitting working title The Necessary Passion:
“Being in love — falling in love” — now I understand it — now I know what it means — what happens to me when I am writing: I am in love with the work, the subject, the characters, and while it goes on & a while after, the opus itself. — I function only by falling in love: with French and France; with the 15th Century; with microbiology, cosmology, sleep research, etc. at various times — I could not have written A Week in the Country without having fallen in love with current DNA research! … What it is I suppose is the creative condition as expressed in human emotion and mood — So it comes out curiously the same whether sexual or spiritual or aesthetic or intellectual.
And yet, perhaps because Le Guin is capable of synthesizing such intimate emotional satisfaction from the external world, she has never inverted the relationship and externalized her interiority in a literal way, through confessional writing. Instead, her work, as she puts it, “contains elements of direct personal experience so transformed as to be entirely fictional rather than confessional.” She captures this creative orientation with her characteristic splendor of expression:
Some writers can handle lava with bare hands, but I’m not so tough, my skin is not asbestos. And in fact I have no interest in confession. My games are transformation and invention.
Complement Le Guin’s The Complete Orsinia with her abiding wit and wisdom on being a “man,” the magic of real human conversation, the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, and where good ideas come from, then see Julie Phillips’s fantastic New Yorker profile of Le Guin.
Published November 1, 2016