Creative alchemy: experience transformed by imagination
Wednesday, May 31, 2017
Here's another interesting passage from Ursula K. Le Guin's "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" -- an esssay examining the mysterious process of "inspiration" when writing fiction:
"I have written fantastic stories closely based on actual experience," she says, "and realistic stories totally made up out of whole cloth. Some of my science fiction is full of accurate and carefully researched fact, while my stories about ordinary people doing ordinary things on the Oregon coast in 1990 contain large wetlands and quicksands of pure invention. I hope to show you that fictional 'ideas' arise from the combination of experience and imagination that is both indissoluble and utterly unpredictable.
"In my Earthsea books, particularly the first one, people sail around on the sea in small boats all the time. They do it quite convincingly, and many people understandably assume that I spent years sailing around on the sea in small boats.
"My entire experience of sailboats was during my junior semester at Berkeley High School, when they let us take sailing for gym credit. On a windy day in the Berkeley Marina, my friend Jean and I managed to overturn and sink a nine-foot catboat in three feet of water. We sang 'Nearer, My God, to Thee' as she went down, then waded half a mile back to the boathouse. The boatman was incredulous. 'You sank it?' he said. 'How?'
"That will remain one of the secrets of the writer.
"All right, so practically all the sailing in Earthsea, certainly all the deep-sea sailing, does not reflect experience. Not my experience. Only my imagination, using that catboat, other people's experience, novels I'd read, and some research (I do know why Lookfar is clinker-built), asking friends questions, and some trips on ocean liners. But basically, it's a fake. So is all snow and ice in The Left Hand of Darkness. I never even saw snow until I was seventeen, and I certainly never pulled a sledge across a glacier. Except with Captain Scott, and Shakleton, and those guys. In books. Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people's books. If I didn't read, how could I write?
"We all stand on each other's shoulders, we all use each other's ideas and skills and plots and secrets. Literature is a communal enterprise. That 'anxiety of influence' stuff is just testosterone talking. Understand me: I don't mean plagiarism; I'm not talking about imitation, or copying, or theft. The stuff from other people's books gets into us just as our own experience does, is composted and transmuted and transformed by the imagination, just as actual experiences are, and comes forth entirely changed.
"If that were not so, if I though I had really stolen and used any other writer's writing, I certainly wouldn't stand here congratulating myself. I'd go hide my head in shame and wait for the lawsuit. But as it is, I acknowledge with delight my endless debt to every storyteller I have ever read, my colleagues, my collaborators -- I praise them and honor them, the endless givers of gifts."
For further reading on the role of "influence" in creative work, read Jonthan Lethem's excellent essay on the subject...or my mediation on influence, inspired by an interview with Didier Graffet.
The lovely art today is by Kristin Kwan, a painter and illustrator based in Nebraska.
"When I was growing up my family moved many times, and every new home held mysteries and secrets," she writes. "I knew there was a hidden stairway that led to unknown attics somewhere, or cellars underneath that held forgotten treasures. I knew I could get there if I just kept looking.
"That low door is still elusive, but when I pick up my pencil or paint brush, I know I can find it for a little while. When I paint I try to bring a little of that magic country back with me."
To see more of her distinctive and magical work, please visit Kwan's website and tumblr.
The passage above is from "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, a talk for the Portland Arts & Lectures series, October, 2000, published in The World Spit Open (Tin House Books, 2014). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.