“Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!”
Her insight into the writing process, always delivered with her signature blend of hard wisdom and warm wit, makes for a spectacular addition to the most abiding advice on the craft — nowhere more so in her layered answer to what is perhaps the most elemental question in creative work: How do you make something good?
Although Le Guin’s advice addresses writing in particular, it applies to just about every field of creative endeavor:
The way to make something good is to make it well.
If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good.
In a sentiment of far-reaching resonance amid our culture of rampant reductionism, awash in listicles and other sexified pseudo-shortcuts, she echoes Werner Herzog’s advice to aspiring filmmakers and cautions:
Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!
Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.
There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.
This testing, Le Guin counsels, could benefit from feedback — but only by “readers qualified to judge.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Steinbeck’s prophetic dream about how commercialism is killing creative culture, she cautions — in a perfect LeGuinism — against listening to editors, publishers, agents, and other merchants of culture who give you rules for what will sell:
Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?
We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.
With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.
Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.
In a 1997 speech celebrating the renovation of Portland’s Multnomah County Library, Le Guin writes:
A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place.
After an affectionate time-travel tour of the formative libraries in her life, Le Guin considers the universal gift of the free public library:
Knowledge sets us free, art sets us free. A great library is freedom.
Plunging into the ocean of words, roaming in the broad fields of the mind, climbing the mountains of the imagination. Just like the kid in the Carnegie or the student in Widener, that was my freedom, that was my joy. And it still is.
That joy must not be sold. It must not be “privatised,” made into another privilege for the privileged. A public library is a public trust.
And that freedom must not be compromised. It must be available to all who need it, and that’s everyone, when they need it, and that’s always.
“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
By Maria Popova
Every act of communication is an act of tremendous courage in which we give ourselves over to two parallel possibilities: the possibility of planting into another mind a seed sprouted in ours and watching it blossom into a breathtaking flower of mutual understanding; and the possibility of being wholly misunderstood, reduced to a withering weed. Candor and clarity go a long way in fertilizing the soil, but in the end there is always a degree of unpredictability in the climate of communication — even the warmest intention can be met with frost. Yet something impels us to hold these possibilities in both hands and go on surrendering to the beauty and terror of conversation, that ancient and abiding human gift. And the most magical thing, the most sacred thing, is that whichever the outcome, we end up having transformed one another in this vulnerable-making process of speaking and listening.
In the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut’s diagrams of the shapes of stories, Le Guin argues that “our ruling concept of communication is a mechanical model,” which she illustrates thusly:
Box A and box B are connected by a tube. Box A contains a unit of information. Box A is the transmitter, the sender. The tube is how the information is transmitted — it is the medium. And box B is the receiver. They can alternate roles. The sender, box A, codes the information in a way appropriate to the medium, in binary bits, or pixels, or words, or whatever, and transmits it via the medium to the receiver, box B, which receives and decodes it.
A and B can be thought of as machines, such as computers. They can also be thought of as minds. Or one can be a machine and the other a mind.
But the magic of human communication, Le Guin observes, is that something other than mere information is being transmitted — something more intangible yet more real:
In most cases of people actually talking to one another, human communication cannot be reduced to information. The message not only involves, it is, a relationship between speaker and hearer. The medium in which the message is embedded is immensely complex, infinitely more than a code: it is a language, a function of a society, a culture, in which the language, the speaker, and the hearer are all embedded.
In human conversation, in live, actual communication between or among human beings, everything “transmitted” — everything said — is shaped as it is spoken by actual or anticipated response.
Live, face-to-face human communication is intersubjective. Intersubjectivity involves a great deal more than the machine-mediated type of stimulus-response currently called “interactive.” It is not stimulus-response at all, not a mechanical alternation of precoded sending and receiving. Intersubjectivity is mutual. It is a continuous interchange between two consciousnesses. Instead of an alternation of roles between box A and box B, between active subject and passive object, it is a continuous intersubjectivity that goes both ways all the time.
My private model for intersubjectivity, or communication by speech, or conversation, is amoebas having sex. As you know, amoebas usually reproduce by just quietly going off in a corner and budding, dividing themselves into two amoebas; but sometimes conditions indicate that a little genetic swapping might improve the local crowd, and two of them get together, literally, and reach out to each other and meld their pseudopodia into a little tube or channel connecting them.
This, too, she illustrates with a diagram:
In an exquisite passage at the intersection of biology, anthropology, and sheer literary genius, Le Guin elaborates:
Then amoeba A and amoeba B exchange genetic “information,” that is, they literally give each other inner bits of their bodies, via a channel or bridge which is made out of outer bits of their bodies. They hang out for quite a while sending bits of themselves back and forth, mutually responding each to the other.
This is very similar to how people unite themselves and give each other parts of themselves — inner parts, mental not bodily parts—when they talk and listen. (You can see why I use amoeba sex not human sex as my analogy: in human hetero sex, the bits only go one way. Human hetero sex is more like a lecture than a conversation. Amoeba sex is truly mutual because amoebas have no gender and no hierarchy. I have no opinion on whether amoeba sex or human sex is more fun. We might have the edge, because we have nerve endings, but who knows?)
Two amoebas having sex, or two people talking, form a community of two. People are also able to form communities of many, through sending and receiving bits of ourselves and others back and forth continually — through, in other words, talking and listening. Talking and listening are ultimately the same thing.
Reminding us that literacy is an incredibly nascent invention and still far from universal, Le Guin considers the singular and immutable power of spoken conversation in fostering a profound mutuality by syncing our essential vibrations:
Speech connects us so immediately and vitally because it is a physical, bodily process, to begin with. Not a mental or spiritual one, wherever it may end.
If you mount two clock pendulums side by side on the wall, they will gradually begin to swing together. They synchronise each other by picking up tiny vibrations they each transmit through the wall.
Any two things that oscillate at about the same interval, if they’re physically near each other, will gradually tend to lock in and pulse at exactly the same interval. Things are lazy. It takes less energy to pulse cooperatively than to pulse in opposition. Physicists call this beautiful, economical laziness mutual phase locking, or entrainment.
All living beings are oscillators. We vibrate. Amoeba or human, we pulse, move rhythmically, change rhythmically; we keep time. You can see it in the amoeba under the microscope, vibrating in frequencies on the atomic, the molecular, the subcellular, and the cellular levels. That constant, delicate, complex throbbing is the process of life itself made visible.
We huge many-celled creatures have to coordinate millions of different oscillation frequencies, and interactions among frequencies, in our bodies and our environment. Most of the coordination is effected by synchronising the pulses, by getting the beats into a master rhythm, by entrainment.
Like the two pendulums, though through more complex processes, two people together can mutually phase-lock. Successful human relationship involves entrainment — getting in sync. If it doesn’t, the relationship is either uncomfortable or disastrous.
This entrainment, Le Guin argues, occurs organically and constantly, often below our conscious awareness and beyond willful intention:
Consider deliberately sychronised actions like singing, chanting, rowing, marching, dancing, playing music; consider sexual rhythms (courtship and foreplay are devices for getting into sync). Consider how the infant and the mother are linked: the milk comes before the baby cries. Consider the fact that women who live together tend to get onto the same menstrual cycle. We entrain one another all the time.
Listening is not a reaction, it is a connection. Listening to a conversation or a story, we don’t so much respond as join in — become part of the action.
When you can and do entrain, you are synchronising with the people you’re talking with, physically getting in time and tune with them. No wonder speech is so strong a bond, so powerful in forming community.
Sound signifies event. A noise means something is happening. Let’s say there’s a mountain out your window. You see the mountain. Your eyes report changes, snowy in winter, brown in summer, but mainly just report that it’s there. It’s scenery. But if you hear that mountain, then you know it’s doing something. I see Mount St. Helens out my study window, about eighty miles north. I did not hear it explode in 1980: the sound wave was so huge that it skipped Portland entirely and touched down in Eugene, a hundred miles to the south. Those who did hear that noise knew that something had happened. That was a word worth hearing. Sound is event.
Speech, the most specifically human sound, and the most significant kind of sound, is never just scenery, it’s always event.
This event of speech, Le Guin argues, is the most potent form of entrainment we humans have — and the intimate tango of speaking and listening is the stuff of great power and great magic:
When you speak a word to a listener, the speaking is an act. And it is a mutual act: the listener’s listening enables the speaker’s speaking. It is a shared event, intersubjective: the listener and speaker entrain with each other. Both the amoebas are equally responsible, equally physically, immediately involved in sharing bits of themselves.
The voice creates a sphere around it, which includes all its hearers: an intimate sphere or area, limited in both space and time.
Creation is an act. Action takes energy.
Sound is dynamic. Speech is dynamic — it is action. To act is to take power, to have power, to be powerful. Mutual communication between speakers and listeners is a powerful act. The power of each speaker is amplified, augmented, by the entrainment of the listeners. The strength of a community is amplified, augmented by its mutual entrainment in speech.
This is why utterance is magic. Words do have power. Names have power. Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Anna Deavere Smith on the art of listening between the lines, Le Guin argues that this entrainment and our intuitive expectations around it are at the heart of how and why great art compels us:
In the realm of art … we can fulfill our expectations only by learning which authors disappoint and which authors offer the true nourishment for the soul. We find out who the good writers are, and then we look or wait for their next book. Such writers — living or dead, whatever genre they write in, critically fashionable or not, academically approved or not — are those who not only meet our expectations but surpass them. That is the gift the great storytellers have. They tell the same stories over and over (how many stories are there?), but when they tell them they are new, they are news, they renew us, they show us the world made new.
So people seek the irreproducible moment, the brief, fragile community of story told among people gathered together in one place. So children gather at the library to be read to: look at the little circle of faces, blazing with intensity. So the writer on a book tour, reading in the bookstore, and her group of listeners reenact the ancient ritual of the teller at the center of the circle. The living response has enabled that voice to speak. Teller and listener, each fulfills the other’s expectations. The living tongue that tells the word, the living ear that hears it, bind and bond us in the communion we long for in the silence of our inner solitude.
The Wave in the Mind, which borrows its title from Virginia Woolf’s timeless meditation on writing and consciousness, is one of the most intelligent, insightful, and profoundly pleasurable books you can ever hope to read — the kind guaranteed to far surpass any expectations seeded in this very sentence.
I will dispose of the first myth as quickly as possible. The “secret” is skill. If you haven’t learned how to do something, the people who have may seem to be magicians, possessors of mysterious secrets. In a fairly simple art, such as making pie crust, there are certain teachable “secrets” of method that lead almost infallibly to good results; but in any complex art, such as housekeeping, piano-playing, clothes-making, or story-writing, there are so many techniques, skills, choices of method, so many variables, so many “secrets,” some teachable and some not, that you can learn them only by methodical, repeated, long-continued practice — in other words, by work.
Some of the secretiveness of many artists about their techniques, recipes, etc., may be taken as a warning to the unskilled: What works for me isn’t going to work for you unless you’ve worked for it.
My talent and inclination for writing stories and keeping house were strong from the start, and my gift for and interest in music and sewing were weak; so that I doubt that I would ever have been a good seamstress or pianist, no matter how hard I worked. But nothing I know about how I learned to do the things I am good at doing leads me to believe that there are “secrets” to the piano or the sewing machine or any art I’m no good at. There is just the obstinate, continuous cultivation of a disposition, leading to skill in performance.
She then turns to the second central fallacy of the origin-of-ideas question, namely the notion of the “idea” itself:
The more I think about the word “idea,” the less idea I have what it means. … I think this is a kind of shorthand use of “idea” to stand for the complicated, obscure, un-understood process of the conception and formation of what is going to be a story when it gets written down. The process may not involve ideas in the sense of intelligible thoughts; it may well not even involve words. It may be a matter of mood, resonances, mental glimpses, voices, emotions, visions, dreams, anything. It is different in every writer, and in many of us it is different every time. It is extremely difficult to talk about, because we have very little terminology for such processes.
I would say that as a general rule, though an external event may trigger it, this inceptive state or story-beginning phase does not come from anywhere outside the mind that can be pointed to; it arises in the mind, from psychic contents that have become unavailable to the conscious mind, inner or outer experience that has been, in Gary Snyder’s lovely phrase, composted. I don’t believe that a writer “gets” (takes into the head) an “idea” (some sort of mental object) “from” somewhere, and then turns it into words and writes them on paper. At least in my experience, it doesn’t work that way. The stuff has to be transformed into oneself, it has to be composted, before it can grow a story.
Mystical as the process may be, Le Guin goes on to outline its “five principal elements,” which must “work in one insoluble unitary movement” in order to produce great writing:
The patterns of the language — the sounds of words.
The patterns of syntax and grammar; the way the words and sentences connect themselves together; the ways their connections interconnect to form the larger units (paragraphs, sections, chapters); hence the movement of the work, its tempo, pace, gait, and shape in time.
The patterns of the images: what the words make us or let us see with the mind’s eye or sense imaginatively.
The patterns of the ideas: what the words and the narration of events make us understand, or use our understanding upon.
The patterns of the feelings: what the words and the narration, by using all the above means, make us experience emotionally or spiritually, in areas of our being not directly accessible to or expressible in words.
All these kinds of patterning — sound, syntax, images, ideas, feelings — have to work together; and they all have to be there in some degree. The inception of the work, that mysterious stage, is perhaps their coming together: when in the author’s mind a feeling begins to connect itself to an image that will express it, and that image leads to an idea, until now half-formed, that begins to find words for itself, and the words lead to other words that make new images, perhaps of people, characters of a story, who are doing things that express the underlying feelings and ideas that are now resonating with each other.
If any of these processes get scanted badly or left out, in the conception stage, in the writing stage, or in the revising stage, the result will be a weak or failed story. Failure often allows us to analyze what success triumphantly hides from us.
In a sentiment that Rebecca Solnit would come to second decades later in reflecting on the shared intimacy of reading and writing, Le Guin deploys one of her characteristically animated metaphors that can’t help but put a smile on the soul:
Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them, or without even knowing how to find the words and string them together. Ignorance of English vocabulary and grammar is a considerable liability to a writer of English. The best cure for it is, I believe, reading. People who learned to talk at two or so and have been practicing talking ever since feel with some justification that they know their language; but what they know is their spoken language, and if they read little, or read schlock, and haven’t written much, their writing is going to be pretty much what their talking was when they were two.
She returns to the vital balance of those five elements:
There is a relationship, a reciprocity between the words and the images, ideas, and emotions evoked by those words: the stronger that relationship, the stronger the work. To believe that you can achieve meaning or feeling without coherent, integrated patterning of the sounds, the rhythms, the sentence structures, the images, is like believing you can go for a walk without bones.
Le Guin considers the epicenter of that relationship — of the elements, of reader and writer:
Imagery takes place in “the imagination,” which I take to be the meeting place of the thinking mind with the sensing body… In the imagination we can share a capacity for experience and an understanding of truth far greater than our own. The great writers share their souls with us — “literally.”
The intellect cannot do the work of the imagination; the emotions cannot do the work of the imagination; and neither of them can do anything much in fiction without the imagination.
Where the writer and the reader collaborate to make the work of fiction is perhaps, above all, in the imagination. In the joint creation of the fictive world.
With a self-effacing wink at her profession and the odd creative rituals of her ilk, Le Guin considers the writer’s eternal tussle with his or her consciousness of, and often self-consciousness about, the audience — an audience that, today, is exponentially more able and willing to make its presence and opinion known via likes, tweets, and other innocuously named, spiritually toxic Pavlovian mechanisms:
Writers are egotists. All artists are. They can’t be altruists and get their work done. And writers love to whine about the Solitude of the Author’s Life, and lock themselves into cork-lined rooms or droop around in bars in order to whine better. But although most writing is done in solitude, I believe that it is done, like all the arts, for an audience. That is to say, with an audience. All the arts are performance arts, only some of them are sneakier about it than others.
But her most piercing point — one she would come to echo three decades later in her National Book Award acceptance speech — is a monumental disclaimer:
I beg you please to attend carefully now to what I am not saying. I am not saying that you should think about your audience when you write. I am not saying that the writing writer should have in mind, “Who will read this? Who will buy it? Who am I aiming this at?” — as if it were a gun. No.
While planning a work, the writer may and often must think about readers: particularly if it’s something like a story for children, where you need to know whether your reader is likely to be a five-year-old or a ten-year old.* Considerations of who will or might read the piece are appropriate and sometimes actively useful in planning it, thinking about it, thinking it out, inviting images. But once you start writing, it is fatal to think about anything but the writing. True work is done for the sake of doing it. What is to be done with it afterwards is another matter, another job. A story rises from the springs of creation, from the pure will to be; it tells itself; it takes its own course, finds its own way, its own words; and the writer’s job is to be its medium.
And yet the reader, Le Guin argues, is an essential piece of the telling of the story. The writer’s work should extend an invitation for collaboration to the reader:
The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.
It comes down to collaboration, or sharing the gift: the writer tries to get the reader working with the text in the effort to keep the whole story all going along in one piece in the right direction (which is my general notion of a good piece of fiction).
In this effort, writers need all the help they can get. Even under the most skilled control, the words will never fully embody the vision. Even with the most sympathetic reader, the truth will falter and grow partial. Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.