Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing, and Publishing ~

Tag Archives: Ursula K. Le Guin

What Is a Novel?


The question that forms the title of this post may seem simple to answer; yet, is it?

Image Courtesy of Julia Freeman-Woolpert ~ http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/juliaf-55850

I can imagine a few answers from certain folks:

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“A thick book with a story in it.”

“A continuous narrative of at least 50,000 words.”

“What a dumb question—everybody knows what a novel is.”

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The only problem is that many novelists would disagree with those answers; and, many other answers to the question.

Ursula K. Le Guin, in her book, Words Are My Matter, said this:

“Readers, I think, are often led astray by the widespread belief that a novel springs from a single originating ‘idea’, and then are kept astray by the critical practice of discussing fiction as completely accessible to intellect, a rational presentation of ideas by means of an essentially ornamental narrative.”

The “ornamental narrative” of that quote is, sadly, what many “experts” of “literary” fiction think they’re dealing with when they reduce the art of the novelist into their simplistic “explanations” of what the novel “means”…

Le Guin also says:

“If fiction is how it says what it says, then useful criticism is what shows you how fiction says what it says.”

So…

Another rendition of her words might be:

Fiction isn’t just what it says—isn’t just the bare words on the page. It’s how those words shape the ideas of the story and add feeling to the narrative.

So then, the honest critic has to work to show how the novel takes mere words and fashions them into the artistic presentation of ideas and feelings.

And, that presentation is not capable of being reduced to a coldly rational train of thoughts…

Well, not capable of being reduced if it is, in fact, a novel; since, I’m sure there are books out there, with many words in them, which are not richly artistic novels; but, merely books that are “completely accessible to intellect, a rational presentation of ideas by means of an essentially ornamental narrative.”

Care to share your thoughts and feelings in the comments?

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“These are scary and uncertain times…” ~ “What’s a writer’s calling…”


These are scary and uncertain times... ~ What's a writer's calling...

Image courtesy of Antonio Jiménez Alonso ~ http://www.freeimages.com/photographer/Capgros-58778

One week ago, I published a post called “Words Are My Matter” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin.

I’ve been reading that book and can recommend it to all Readers, Writers, and Publishers…

The other day, I got to a particular essay that had these words:

“Where am I to find strength and hope in this world? In my work, in trying to write well. What’s a writer’s calling, now or at any time? To write, to try to write well. What work will make a difference? Well-made work, honest work, writing well written. And how might we create a community of purpose? I can’t say.”

The thoughts in that essay are explored by Maria Popova in her article, Inner Preacher vs. Inner Teacher: Ursula K. Le Guin on Meaning Beyond Message and the Primary Responsibility of the Artist.

Le Guin wrote it a number of years ago and the words I quoted up there reminded me of the import of a relatively new “community of purpose” called Main Street Writers Movement—which is actually for “Writers, readers, booksellers, publishers, editors, publicists, agents, and anyone who wants to participate in the literary conversation.”

The Founder of that Movement, a publisher in the state of Oregon, wrote what I can consider an answer to Le Guin’s words, “…how might we create a community of purpose?” — the publisher said:

“These are scary and uncertain times, but we must continue to use our voices and to listen to our neighbors’ words. By signing this pledge, you’ll become an official member of the Main Street Writers Movement, earning you access to literary community building tools, industry insights, and connections with #mainstreetwriters who are creating new opportunities in their cities. We’ll send you a newsletter once a month with ways to get involved and ideas to make a difference….Let’s honor and amplify our communities’ underrepresented voices. Let’s buy from local bookstores and small presses. Let’s leave our houses and dance in the streets to the sound of each other’s words.”

Obviously, some folks wouldn’t see important connections between a highly-celebrated writer’s words and the words of an Indie publisher…

Yet, there are two things I’m certain of:

1. Reading Words Are My Matter will give you the mental and emotional tools to decide what readers, writers, and publishers need in these times…

2. Joining the Main Street Writers Movement will help you gain a sense of Community which could help inspire readers, writers, and publishers to accomplish what is needed in these times…

One other thing I’m sure of is that reading Le Guin’s other essay, Staying Awake ~ Notes on the alleged decline of reading, could help you find, in yourself, the motivation to read Words Are My Matter and join Main Street Writers Movement
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“Words Are My Matter” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin


Yesterday, I finally began reading Ursula K. Le Guin‘s, Words are My Matter : Writings About Life and Books, 2000-2016, with a Journal of a Writer’s WeekWords Are My Matter

I got a few pages in and had to put it down—strange because I’ve read her short stories and novellas and was always furiously eager to keep reading…

The difference with Words Are My Matter is that it contains Le Guin’s essays.

She carefully begins the book with an explanation of how radically different essay writing is from her more natural storytelling or poetry creation—and, her essays are so amazingly full with ripe ideas that I felt a need to slow down and digest…

Another thing I decided was that I would not collect excerpts for a blog post about the book—I saw no way to take such remarkable writing and pull out pieces to display…

However, I’d completely forgotten that I’d bookmarked an article from BrainPickingsUrsula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves.

Well, since Maria Popova, author of BrainPickings, has excerpted the book, I can “blame” her for “literary dissection” and share some of this book that all writers should read (non-writing readers and publishers would be well-served digesting it, too...)

“In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.”

I should have mentioned, I’m not sharing All the excerpts from Maria’s article :-)

Here’s one about Literature:

“Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.”

And, why imagination is so important:

“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.”

And, one last excerpt—begun in Maria’s article and searched for in Le Guin’s book by me (for more words than Maria used...), though I haven’t gone against my claim up there—“…I would not collect excerpts for a blog post about the book…”; because all I did was copy the beginning and paste it into my KIndle app—I grabbed this, I didn’t “collect” it :-)

“What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.

“Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.

“Reading is a means of listening.

“Reading is not as passive as hearing or viewing. It’s an act: you do it. You read at your pace, your own speed, not the ceaseless, incoherent, gabbling, shouting rush of the media. You take in what you can and want to take in, not what they shove at you fast and hard and loud in order to overwhelm and control you. Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. You aren’t being brainwashed or co-opted or used; you’ve joined in an act of the imagination.”

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Sailing the Sea of Story ~~~ Ursula K. Le Guin


I am a writer; but, I’ve rarely read books about “how” to write.

I’m from the school of read omnivorously, absorb grammar and syntax usage, rub up against all kinds of storytelling; then, write my own…

However, I did recently read Ursula K. Le Guin‘s,  Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.

The book has Exercises (from workshops she did); Examples, from accomplished authors; and, Further Reading recommendations; but, of course, most of the book is Ursula talking to you about writing.

The best I can do to honor her book on this blog is to share a few choice excerpts and hope writers will read it; and, that readers will tell their writer friends about it.

First is her explanation of why Plot is not the same as Story:

“I define story as a narrative of events (external or psychological) that moves through time or implies the passage of time and that involves change. I define plot as a form of story that uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict, and that closely and intricately connects one act to another, usually through a causal chain, ending in a climax. Climax is one kind of pleasure; plot is one kind of story. A strong, shapely plot is a pleasure in itself. It can be reused generation after generation. It provides an armature for narrative that beginning writers may find invaluable. But most serious modern fictions can’t be reduced to a plot or retold without fatal loss except in their own words.

“The story is not in the plot but in the telling. It is the telling that moves.”

The next excerpt might be more fully understood if you first read my past post, How The Words Get On The Screen/Page

“Some people see art as a matter of control. I see it mostly as a matter of self-control. It’s like this: in me there’s a story that wants to be told. It is my end; I am its means. If I can keep myself, my ego, my wishes and opinions, my mental junk, out of the way and find the focus of the story, and follow the movement of the story, the story will tell itself. Everything I’ve talked about in this book has to do with being ready to let a story tell itself: having the skills, knowing the craft, so that when the magic boat comes by, you can step into it and guide it where it wants to go, where it ought to go.”

One final excerpt:

“There are a limited number of plots (some say seven, some say twelve, some say thirty). There is no limit to the number of stories. Everybody in the world has their story; every meeting of one person with another may begin a story.

“I say this in an attempt to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they’re allowed to write a story. If that’s the way you like to write, write that way, of course. But if it isn’t, if you aren’t a planner or a plotter, don’t worry. The world’s full of stories . .  . All you need may be a character or two, or a conversation, or a situation, or a place, and you’ll find the story there. You think about it, you work it out at least partly before you start writing, so that you know in a general way where you’re going, but the rest works itself out in the telling. I like my image of ‘steering the craft’, but in fact the story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it’s going.”

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Ursula K. Le Guin ~ New Collections of Her Wondrous Works


This makes the 6th post I’ve done that includes Ursula K. Le Guin.

We may be getting ready to bid her physicality adieu; but, her Spirit will continue to inhabit this planet, in her writings.

And, an article in The Guardian lets us know there are new collections of her work.

From that article:

“Fortunately for readers, two new books debuted…The Unreal and the Real and The Found and the Lost (both by Saga Press). The Complete Orsinia (Library of America) was released 6 September and Words are My Matter (Small Beer Press) was released 19 September.”

The first three books are her fiction, the last non-fiction…

And, considering the genre of literary fiction (which seems to have clung to realism…):

“‘Realism is a genre – a very rich one, that gave us and continues to give us lots of great fiction’, the 86-year-old writer told the Guardian. ‘But by making that one genre the standard of quality, by limiting literature to it, we were leaving too much serious writing out of serious consideration. Too many imaginative babies were going out with the bathwater. Too many critics and teachers ignored – were ignorant of – any kind of fiction but realism.’”

Commenting on her “giving up on writing novels”:

“As I got up in my 70s, stories began coming to me more and more rarely. I finished the novel Lavinia at 78. I no longer have the stamina to undertake a new novel, even if I wanted to. So, here I am, an old writer who loves writing – what have I got left to do?”

A quote from Margaret Atwood:

“All her stories are, as she has said, metaphors for the one human story; all her fantastic planets are this one, however disguised…”

And, Le Guin:

“I wish we could all live in a big house with lots of rooms, and windows, and doors, and none of them locked…”

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If you don’t see a way to comment (or, “reply”) after this post, try up there at the top right…
Read Some Strange Fantasies
Grab A Free Novel…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Google Author Page
For Private Comments or Questions, Email: amzolt {at} gmail {dot} com