Monday, August 11, 2014

Ursula K. Le Guin, "Steering the Craft"

In a recent interview, Ursula Le Guin discusses "genre, gender, and broadening fiction," with Michael Cunningham. She describes the strength of science fiction: making up worlds and peoples, I can recombine and play with what we have and are, can ask what if it were like this instead of like this—What if nobody had a fixed gender, as on the planet Gethen?
On Gethen, as described in Le Guin's novel, "The Left Hand of Darkness," the inhabitants are ambisexual humans. That is, a single individual's gender may change from neutral to female or male, depending on the physical and social environment. A Hugo and Nebula award winner, the novel is as thought-provoking in 2014 as it was when first published in 1969.

"The Wind's Twelve Quarters" is a collection containing possibly Le Guin's most-taught story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." Don't let the "taught" part put you off! The story is a simple but powerful parable, and the telling of it is a lesson on many levels.

As a writer, Le Guin has a lot to say, and uses inspiration from her own family background:

My father was an ethnologist, who learned from the Indians of California that California could be inhabited in a very different way from how we inhabit it—many different ways. I send imaginary people to imaginary planets to learn other ways in which we might inhabit our own.
Her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote the classic anthropological biography, "Ishi," about the last survivor of a California native tribe who made contact with the modern world in 1911. On her personal webpage, Le Guin comments about her family's contact with Ishi:

The only useful thing I can tell people is about his name. Since his people didn't tell other people their name and there was no one to do it for him, he and my father Alfred Kroeber and the other people working with him agreed to use a word which they understood to mean, in Ishi's language, simply "Man."
Ishi passed away many years before Ursula LeGuin was born, so she never had the opportunity to meet him. Nonetheless, her parents' experiences as anthropologists clearly seeped into her imagination to inform her writing.

Books by Ursula LeGuin and her family members
My pile of books by Ursula Le Guin (as well as "Ishi," her mother's book)
Not only does Le Guin have plenty to write about, she is a masterful writer by the standards of any literary genre. I mentioned her book on writing, "Steering the Craft" in an earlier post, but I wanted to praise it again and in more detail.

"Steering the Craft" is a beyond-the-basics lesson in the contents of a writer's toolkit. While it's aimed at fiction writers, it has much to offer nonfiction writers as well. Chapter topics include pacing, voice, point of view (POV), punctuation, and the potential of indirect narration -- all to the purpose of "show, don't tell."

Concepts are illustrated with examples from classic literature or brief passages of her own invention. I never fully understood the power of altering POV to control a reader's experience until seeing how the same paragraph, about a young princess entering a room, changes when simply rendered through various eyes.

An appendix on verb forms is way more interesting and useful than many might think. A lot of people talk about "passive voice," without actually understanding what it is or when or why to avoid it. All of us use imperative, indicative, subjunctive, and potential moods in spoken English naturally, without a second thought, but not many of us could write:

The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California.


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