Ursula K. Le Guin on How to Become a Writer


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How do you become a writer? Answer: you write.

It’s amazing how much resentment and disgust and evasion this answer can arouse. Even among writers, believe me. It is one of those Horrible Truths one would rather not face.

The most frequent evasive tactic is for the would-be writer to say, But before I have anything to say, I must get experience.

Well, yes; if you want to be a journalist. But I don’t know anything about journalism, I’m talking about fiction. And of course fiction is made out of experience, your whole life from infancy on, everything you’ve thought and done and seen and read and dreamed. But experience isn’t something you go and get—it’s a gift, and the only prerequisite for receiving it is that you be open to it. A closed soul can have the most immense adventures, go through a civil war or a trip to the moon, and have nothing to show for all that “experience”; whereas the open soul can do wonders with nothing. I invite you to meditate on a pair of sisters. Emily and Charlotte. Their life experience was an isolated vicarage in a small, dreary English village, a couple of bad years at a girls’ school, another year or two in Brussels, which is surely the dullest city in all Europe, and a lot of housework. Out of that seething mass of raw, vital, brutal, gutsy Experience they made two of the greatest novels ever written: Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Now, of course they were writing from experience; writing about what they knew, which is what people always tell you to do; but what was their experience? What was it they knew? Very little about “life.” They knew their own souls, they knew their own minds and hearts; and it was not a knowledge lightly or easily gained. From the time they were seven or eight years old, they wrote, and thought, and learned the landscape of their own being, and how to describe it. They wrote with the imagination, which is the tool of the farmer, the plow you plow your own soul with. They wrote from inside, from as deep inside as they could get by using all their strength and courage and intelligence. And that is where books come from. The novelist writes from inside.

I’m rather sensitive on this point, because I write science fiction, or fantasy, or about imaginary countries, mostly—stuff that, by definition, involves times, places, events that I could not possibly experience in my own life. So when I was young and would submit one of these things about space voyages to Orion or dragons or something, I was told, at extremely regular intervals, “You should try to write about things you know about.” And I would say, But I do; I know about Orion, and dragons, and imaginary countries. Who do you think knows about my own imaginary countries, if I don’t?

But they didn’t listen, because they don’t understand, they have it all backward. They think an artist is like a roll of photographic film, you expose it and develop it and there is a reproduction of Reality in two dimensions. But that’s all wrong, and if any artist tells you, “I am a camera,” or “I am a mirror,” distrust them instantly, they’re fooling you, pulling a fast one. Artists are people who are not at all interested in the facts—only in the truth. You get the facts from outside. The truth you get from inside.

OK, how do you go about getting at that truth? You want to tell the truth. You want to be a writer. So what do you do?

You write.

Honestly, why do people ask that question? Does anybody ever come up to a musician and say, Tell me, tell me—how should I become a tuba player? No! It’s too obvious. If you want to be a tuba player you get a tuba, and some tuba music. And you ask the neighbors to move away or put cotton in their ears. And probably you get a tuba teacher, because there are quite a lot of objective rules and techniques both to written music and to tuba performance. And then you sit down and you play the tuba, every day, every week, every month, year after year, until you are good at playing the tuba; until you can—if you desire—play the truth on the tuba.

It is exactly the same with writing. You sit down and you do it, and you do it, and you do it, until you have learned how to do it.

Of course, there are differences. Writing makes no noise, except groans, and it can be done anywhere, and it is done alone.

Artists are people who are not at all interested in the facts—only in the truth. You get the facts from outside. The truth you get from inside.

It is the experience or premonition of that loneliness, perhaps, that drives a lot of young writers into this search for rules. I envy musicians very much, myself. They get to play together, their art is largely communal; and there are rules to it, an accepted body of axioms and techniques, which can be put into words or at least demonstrated, and so taught. Writing cannot be shared, nor can it be taught as a technique, except on the most superficial level. All a writer’s real learning is done alone, thinking, reading other people’s books, or writing—practicing. A really good writing class or workshop can give us some shadow of what musicians have all the time—the excitement of a group working together, so that each member outdoes himself—but what comes out of that is not a collaboration, a joint accomplishment, like a string quartet or a symphony performance, but a lot of totally separate, isolated works, expressions of individual souls. And therefore there are no rules, except those each individual makes up.

I know. There are lots of rules. You find them in the books about The Craft of Fiction and The Art of the Short Story and so on. I know some of them. One of them says: Never begin a story with dialogue! People won’t read it; here is somebody talking and they don’t know who and so they don’t care, so—Never begin a story with dialogue.

Well, there is a story I know, it begins like this:

Eh bien, mon prince! so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family!”

It’s not only a dialogue opening, the first four words are in French, and it’s not even a French novel. What a horrible way to begin a book! The title of the book is War and Peace.

There’s another Rule I know: introduce all the main characters early in the book. That sounds perfectly sensible, mostly I suppose it is sensible, but it’s not a rule, or if it is somebody forgot to tell it to Charles Dickens. He didn’t get Sam Weller into The Pickwick Papers for ten chapters—that’s five months, since the book was coming out as a serial in installments.

Now, you can say, All right, so Tolstoy can break the rules, so Dickens can break the rules, but they’re geniuses; rules are made for geniuses to break, but for ordinary, talented, not-yet-professional writers to follow, as guidelines.

And I would accept this, but very very grudgingly, and with so many reservations that it amounts in the end to nonacceptance. Put it this way: if you feel you need rules and want rules, and you find a rule that appeals to you, or that works for you, then follow it. Use it. But if it doesn’t appeal to you or doesn’t work for you, then ignore it; in fact, if you want to and are able to, kick it in the teeth, break it, fold staple mutilate and destroy it.

See, the thing is, as a writer you are free. You are about the freest person that ever was. Your freedom is what you have bought with your solitude, your loneliness. You are in the country where you make up the rules, the laws. You are both dictator and obedient populace. It is a country nobody has ever explored before. It is up to you to make the maps, to build the cities. Nobody else in the world can do it, or ever could do it, or ever will be able to do it again.

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the language of the nigth

Excerpted from THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT by Ursula K. Le Guin. Copyright © 1989 by Ursula K. Le Guin. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, LLC.



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