Ursula K. Le Guin is one of the best and most important contemporary writers of science fiction. Her prose is immaculate, whether she was focusing on gender politics in The Left Hand of Darkness, consumer culture in The Dispossessed, creating sci-fi tech that others will use for decades (the ansible: a communication device that relays messages without delay no matter the distance [yes, that was her invention!]), or magical battles and confronting the darkness within in the Earthsea series.
I adore her. She’s one of my writing godmothers, and I’m sure many others say so.
So I’ve been meaning to work my way through her book on writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. Each chapter focuses on a particular element of creative writing craft, then provides writing exercises.
Though Le Guin passed away in January 2018, her instruction and her voice are so perfectly preserved in this little book. She left so much of herself behind for us.
- the sound of your writing
Le Guin’s first chapter emphasizes that language is inextricably connected to sound. It may just be the echo in a reader’s head, but whether it’s read out loud or not, our writing has sound. Writers should pay attention to that as they write and revise. She suggests reading everything aloud as a way to catch things that sound off.
I am very shy of reading my stuff aloud, even if I’m alone and I know no one can hear me. This is a good reminder to work at getting over that.
The exercise she assigns is to write a paragraph that’s meant to be read aloud. Here’s what I wrote:
The sun rose, twirling, over the forest. Leaves overflowed with diamond dewdrops, spilling rainbows. Across the ground, the shadows of the leaves and the spaces between made rolling, opalescent kaleidoscopes.
No one understands this phenomenon. Not the scientists or the astronomers or the astrologists or the astrophysicists or the children with telescopes pointed through their skylights. It doesn’t make sense, you see, that the sun, a star which gives light equally from all angles, by spinning, should cause the light to ripple across the sky in such a way.
The sun doesn’t much care whether she makes sense to the scientists or astronomers or astrologists or astrophysicists or the children with telescopes pointed through their skylights. The sun understands herself, and that’s enough for her.
And a second exercise. This one was meant to impart a certain emotion through the rhythm and movement of the sentences themselves.
With the birdsong and the whispering of the leaves through the open screen door, she knew—felt it deep-down in her bones and all the way to the roots of her toes—that absolutely anything might happen today. The cool, rich air, the cinnamon-spice of fresh-moistened earth, the distant sweetness of honeysuckle billowing up on the gate, and beyond the air, that sky, washed to shimmering sapphire perfection. The breeze stirs; a distant wind chime plays four notes. Today, she is as limitless as the world.
(I apologize: these are both unedited freewrites. I do think I was more successful in the second exercise than the first.)
Paying attention to the rhythms and sounds shifted my perspective and gave me a different way into the prose. I’m usually concerned with conveying the story or situation as clearly as possible, focusing on concrete details and actions. But what Le Guin begins to unfold here in this first chapter (and will continue to expound on throughout her book) is that there are far more layers and nuance to writing than I typically consider, more options, more ways to create an effect, or to give a description more fire power.
Chapter 2 is about punctuation and grammar, and I had some profoundly interesting revelations in those exercises so stay tuned for the next post…