Thursday, January 25, 2018

Ursula K. Le Guin and writing stories for the ear

Earlier this week the writer Ursula K. LeGuin died in Portland at age 88. There were obituaries in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, and Scientific American. She was best known for her novels (particularly the Earthsea series), but also rewrote a book about writing in 2015 - Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. Its first chapter starts with:

“THE SOUND OF THE LANGUAGE IS WHERE it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.

Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sounds of language. Others ‘outgrow’ their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.

A good writer, like a good reader, has a mind’s ear.”

Le Guin also wrote essays. Her most recent collection from 2017 is titled No Time to Spare (thinking about what matters). I read it earlier this month. Much earlier I read her 1979 collection, The Language of the Night (essays on fantasy and science fiction). It contains a 1973 essay titled Dreams Must Explain Themselves about her well-known Earthsea trilogy of young adult novels: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. Her discussion of A Wizard of Earthsea mentions:

“Wizards are usually elderly or ageless Gandalfs, quite rightly and archetypically. But what were they before they had white beards? How did they learn what is obviously an erudite and dangerous art? Are there colleges for young wizards? And so on.

….There are words, like rushwash tea, for which I can offer no explanation. They simply drink rushwash tea there; that’s what it is called, like lapsang soochong, or Lipton’s here. Rushwash is a Hardic word, of course. If you press me, I will explain that it comes from the rushwash bush, which grows both wild and cultivated everywhere south of Enlad, and bears a small round leaf which when dried and steeped yields a pleasant brownish tea. I did not know this before I wrote the foregoing sentence. Or did I know it and simply never thought about it. What’s in a name? A lot, that’s what.

….I said that to know the true name is to know the thing, for me, and for the wizards. This implies a good deal about the ‘meaning’ of the trilogy, and about me. The trilogy is, in one aspect, about the artist. The artist as magician. The Trickster. Prospero. That is the only truly allegorical aspect it has of which I am conscious. If there are other allegories in it please don’t tell me: I hate allegories. A is ‘really’ B, and a hawk is ‘really’ a handsaw – bah. Humbug. Any creation, primary or secondary, with any vitality to it can ‘really’ be a dozen mutually exclusive things at once, before breakfast.

     Wizardry is artistry. The trilogy is then, in this sense, about art, the creative experience, the creative process. There is always this circularity in fantasy. Dreams must explain themselves.”     

Her best-known speech is the commencement address she gave at Mills College in 1983.

I think I first encountered Le Guin via the 1980 film made for PBS from her 1971 novel, The Lathe of Heaven. You can watch it on YouTube.

The image was adapted from a 1939 Story Hour WPA poster at the Library of Congress.

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