Ursula K. Le Guin On Writing: “Alas, There Are No Recipes”

With the passing of Ursula Le Guin — whose short work I read very early, and whose longer work I only read much, much later — I am reminded of some advice she’d given about writing, and given what is sometimes the focus of this blog, I thought I’d highlight her words here.

(Note: do read her original answer here.)

When asked how one writes something good, she responded with:

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.

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.

And on the subject of writing to a market or following prescribed rules:

If your manuscript doesn’t follow the rules of what’s currently trendy, the rules of what’s supposed to be salable, the rule some great authority laid down, you’re supposed to make it do so. 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? The important thing is to know what it is you’re making, where your story is going, so that you use only the advice that genuinely helps you get there. The hell with soufflé, stick to your 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.

(I find that advice to be very, very freeing.)

Le Guin, having been done with novels, gave herself in 2015 to the task of answering a considerable number of writing questions at Book View Cafe, and I think you’ll find much of what she says there interesting and useful, and I encourage you to read the literally hundreds of answers she gives. I’ve popped in a few more delightful bits here —

On being asked the difference between literary fiction and genre:

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about Genre Fiction vs Literary Fiction in which I stated Le Guin’s Hypothesis:

Literature is the extant body of written art. All novels belong to it.

I find this saves a lot of head-scratching.

On those who believe that one style of POV is correct when writing prose:

Distrust anybody — fellow writer, agent, editor — who tells you that fiction must use only limited third person.

It’s trendy at the moment, sure. But the surest way to go out of vogue is to be in it.

As currently practiced, limited third person is (like the present tense) a kind of flashlight beam — it gives a brilliant, narrow, simplifying intensity of vision. It’s well suited to many short stories and to the kinds of novel where a fast pace and a tight focus are prime values. It lends itself to detachment and irony.

The unlimited third person, the de-centered, flexible, moving point of view, is natural to stories and novels in which character and emotional relationships and interactions, cultural contrasts, etc., are important, in which problems aren’t solved by a gunshot or a bomb but by being worked out (or not worked out) over time.

Forcing such a narrative into a single POV will limit it and may cripple it. Write your story the way it wants and needs to be written. Change your POV when you feel like it!

Only, be really, really sure that you know how to do it…

On writing to, and thinking about, your so-called audience:

“Audience” literally means “the people listening” – which tells you what an odd business writing stories down is. We are silent performers in an empty room. We lack the instant feedback that maintains and sharpens the story-teller’s consciousness of and relationship with the audience. So, does the writer consciously try to imagine a reader? An ideal reader? A whole lot of readers? Or are we each our own audience, writing a book we’d like to read, the way we’d like it written? Or do we seek a peer-group for the feedback? Such choices are entirely up to you the writer. And nobody can say what the right balance of conventionality and expectability, challenge and originality, is for you. Tailoring your writing to a specific audience/market is good for writers to whom salability is a prime value, for others it can be demoralizing, a sell-out.

The only advice I can offer is tentative: If you imagine your “audience,” your readers, imagine them as intelligent and sympathetic — ready to read you if you give them the chance.

And really, one of my favorite bits, she talks about success as a metric in writing:

Esme, I think the word success confuses people. They get recognition mixed up with achievement, and celebrity mixed up with excellence. I rarely use the word – it confuses me. I didn’t want to be a success, I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t set out to write successful books. I tried to write good ones.

Receiving recognition is very important to a young artist, but you may have to settle for achievement with very little recognition for a long time. You ask about me. I wrote and submitted my work to editors for six or seven years without getting anything published except a few poems in poetry magazines – as near invisibility as you can get in print. It kept me going, though. Then I got two short stories accepted within a week, one by a literary quarterly, the other by a commercial genre magazine. From then on I had some sense of where to send the next story, and began to publish more regularly, and finally placed a novel. Each publication added to my self-confidence. Growing recognition added more. But the truth is, I always had confidence in myself as a writer – I had arrogance, even. Yet I had endless times of self-doubt. I think what carried me through was simply commitment to the job. I wanted to do it.

Talent is no good without commitment. I’ve had students who wrote very well, but weren’t willing to commit to write, to go on writing, and to go on writing better. But that’s what it takes.

“Feeling successful” – well, that’s something you have to work out for yourself, what it means to you, how important it is. You’re quite right that very good and highly celebrated writers may not feel “successful.” Maybe they have unhappy natures, and the Nobel Prize would just depress them. Or maybe they aren’t fully satisfied with what they’ve done so far, don’t feel they’ve yet written the best book they could write. But they have the commitment that keeps them trying to do it.

Hang in there. And don’t push it. No hurry! Writing is a lifetime job.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg.

I confess, I’ve never before read her book on writing, Steering the Craft, but I’m going to, now.

And, while you’re at it, given all that’s going on in the world, I suggest seeking out and reading (or re-reading) “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” It was the first thing I’d ever read from Le Guin and it has stuck in my craw (in the best worst way) since, imprinting in ways most stories never do. It’s a near-perfect example of how science-fiction and other imaginary narrative is uniquely posed to challenge us and trouble us and make is think about who we are and what we do.

[photo credit: AP]

26 comments

  • I might know a little bit about a lot of things, and not very much about anything, but I do know that the world is a poorer place for the loss of this very inspirational woman. I hope a new generation of young writers, girls and boys both, are inspired by her work.

  • It’s a sad thing that she died. I learnt of it from your post just now and I’m still working through it. It’s been barely two months since I binged her Earthsea series, so this is hitting me right in the gonads.

    Anyway, I salute you, Ursula K. Le Guin. Your work was incredible, and your prose left me stunned more than once.

  • Thanks, Chuck. I found our digital catalog had her book of advice and grabbed it. Wizard of Earthsea and her other books in my high school library were a large part of the reason I became immersed in reading Science Fiction and Fantasy, and eventually started writing it.

  • She really understood both writing and living.

    This just nails it: “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.”

    The world will be a little less bright without her.

  • I’ve read some Le Guin over the years, but never heard of the Omelas story before, so I will be searching out the stuff I hadn’t read. When Iain M Banks died I had only read ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ but I’ve been seriously catching up since.Why? I don’t want to let go of someone who’s climbed into my head and settled down there.

  • I’m so gladdened to hear many talk about how they loved Le Guin. I find myself with very few words and a hollow place inside. The last time I felt this way was when Prince died. So many people sharing that feeling, celebrating the work of the artist and coming at it from so many different directions. It struck me that a tribe is defined by its stories and its songs. Those touchstones of art signify how we all belong to each other.

  • Thanks for steering me to Book Cafe, Chuck.
    I’m still mourning this terrible loss to the literary community and truly wish I’d found her at the Cafe sooner, but I confess I’m looking forward to seeing the legacy she left there.

  • I’m very, very sad to hear of her death. The Wizard of Earthsea was my first favorite, but I also liked Left Hand of Darkness. And I’ve read and reread Steering the Craft since I love books on writing and it’s full of great advice. I agree with whoever said she was good at life as well as at writing. I always find her writing advice to be sound and sensible.

  • Great post, Chuck. Thank you so much for writing about Ms LeGuin and her lovely pithy wise writings on life and on writing. When I read The Left Hand of Darkness many years ago I was completely transported – it read as a huge left turn from my usual choices of science fiction/fantasy. I remember sitting there with the finished book in my lap, holding it, thinking about it, and two hours went by… I’m feeling a bit tear’y about her death – she left the world a better place for being in it.

  • Thank you for sharing “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I can see why it sticks. Why it burrows in like a tick and doesn’t let go. My head still hurts. Perhaps that is because I cannot decide if I am one who stays or one who goes.

  • I read “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” years ago, but it has stayed with me. Someone today called it a tale appropriate for our times, and I cannot disagree. We are going to miss Ursula Le Guin, plain and simple.

  • What a lovely post. I’ve read Le Guin since I was 11 (Earthsea) and she was my ‘favourite writer’ during my childhood and in many ways still is. Her work has taught me so much and it lives in me, shaping a lot of the ways I see the world. She is a perfect example of the pure power and importance of great writing. And I’m glad that you keep up the work of support, commentary and criticism that is helping so many others hone their craft and take that risk. Cheers Chuck. Here’s to Ursula!

  • “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” was one of the foundations of my creative and philosophical life. It made me question commonly held beliefs about sacrifice and suffering and the choices we make in our lives. I could not remember the title. Thank you for bringing it back to my attention.

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