Ursula Le Guin on imagination

Belstone

In my reading life, I've been bouncing back and forth between fiction and memoir-tinged nonfiction lately, thinking about the difference between them (in terms of the writing craft), and about the tricksy place where the line between them falls. I was reminded of this passage from Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin, and so I'll share them with you:

"In workshops on story writing, I've met many writers who want to work only with memoir, tell only their own story, their experience. Often they say. 'I can't make up stuff, that's too hard, but I can tell what happened.' It seems easier to them to take material directly from their experience than to use their experience as material for making up a story. They assume they can just write what happened.

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Belstone 3

"That appears reasonable, but actually, reproducing experience is a very tricky business requiring both artfulness and practice. You may find you don't know certain important facts or elements of the story you want to tell. Or the private experience so important to you may not be very interesting to others, requires skill to make it meaningful, moving, to the reader. Or, being about yourself, it gets all tangled up with ego, or begins to be falsified by wishful thinking. If you're honestly trying to tell what happened, you find facts are very obstinate things to deal with. But if you begin to fake them, to pretend things happened in a way that makes a nice neat story, you're misusing imagination. You're passing invention off as fact: which is, among children at least, called lying.

"Fiction is invention, but it is not lies. It moves on a different level of reality from either fact-finding or lying.

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"I want to talk here about the difference between imagination and wishful thinking, because it's important both in writing and in living. Wishful thinking is thinking cut loose from reality, a self-indulgence that is often merely childish, but may be dangerous. Imagination, even in its wildest flights, is not detached from reality: imagination acknowledges reality, starts from it, and returns to enrich it. Don Quixote indulges his longing to be a knight till he loses touch with reality and makes an awful mess of his life. That's wishful thinking. Miguel Cervantes, by working out and telling the invented story of a man who wishes he were a knight, vastly increased our store of laughter and human understanding. That's imagination. Wishful thinking is Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich. Imagination is the Constitution of the United States.

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"A failure to see the difference is in itself dangerous. If we assume that imagination has no connection with reality but is mere escapism, and therefore distrust it and repress it, it will be crippled, perverted, it will fall silent or speak untruth. The imagination, like any basic human capacity, needs exercise, discipline, training, in childhood and lifelong.

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"One of the best exercises for the imagination, maybe the very best, is hearing, reading, and telling or writing made-up stories. Good inventions, however fanciful, have both congruity with reality and inner coherence. A story that's mere wish-fulfilling babble, or coercive preaching concealed in a narrative, lacks intellectual coherence and integrity: it isn't a whole thing, it can't stand up, it isn't true to itself.

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"Learning to tell or read a story that is true to itself is about the best education a mind can have."

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Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions, wading through "the river of words" via the Gaelic alphabit, is from High Country (Sandstone Press, 2015). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: A walk by the river near Belstone on Dartmoor, with Howard and the hound.


The bluebell path

Bluebells 1

Today, for this sequence of wildflower posts, I'm following Tilly on a bluebell path...which in folklore (as we discussed earlier) is a dangerous thing to do. The bluepath path is the way into Faerie, and doesn't always lead home again.

Like most of the season's wildflowers, bluebells are an ephemeral pleasure, here today and gone tomorrow. If I want to enjoy them fully then I must take the time to be outdoors right now, not wait until the day's chores are finished and studio goals are met. As a working artist tied to schedules and deadlines, my mind often dwelling in the past or the future, the brevity of the bluebell season pulls me back into the immediate present: to this fragrant blue-tinted hillside experienced with all of my senses.

Bluebells 2

Like every writer, I'm often asked where I find inspiration for my work. There's no single answer to the question, of course, for all kinds of things go into each author's creative mix: our personal histories, experiences, interests, and obsessions, along with the influence of other artists and other works of art. But for me, most of all, inspiration comes from the land: from the folklore-steeped Devon countryside, from the myth-haunted deserts of the American south-west, from the paths I've walked over and over again, creating relationships with the local flora and fauna, and learning their traditional stories.

Bluebells 3

Ursula K. Le Guin has this to say on the subject of inspiration:

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.'

"For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

Bluebells 4

"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

Bluebells 5

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

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The world is, indeed, full of stories upon stories...but sometimes I find that the quiet tales of the land, and my owner inner voice, are drowned out by the roar of the stories pressing in from the world outside: the urgent stories of politics, pandemics, economics, ecological crisis, all of them important, all of them overwhelming. On those days when "the world is too much with us," I lace on my boots, head for the hills, and let the roar diminish behind me. We need the quieter stories too...or, at least, I know that I need them. So I follow my dog on the bluebell path, and a different world is restored to me. Call it nature, call it Faerie, call it the place where poems and tales pluck at my sleeve saying: Tell me next. Tilly and I vanish into the blue....

And somehow we always find our way home.

Bluebells 7

Bluebells 8

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). The quotes tucked into the picture captions (run your cursor over the pictures to see them) come from a variety of sources, cited with the quotes. All rights reserved by the authors. For more posts on creative inspiration, go here.


The birdsong wilderness

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

From "The Wilderness Within" by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"I have absolutely no idea when I first read or heard the tale of Sleeping Beauty. I don't even remember (as I do for some stories) the illustrations, or the language, of a certain edition. I certainly read it for myself as a child in several collections, and again in various forms when I was reading aloud to my own children. One of those versions was a charming Czech-made book, an early example of the pop-up genre; it was good magic, the way the thorny rose-hedge leapt up around the paper castle. And at the end everybody in the castle woke, just as they ought to do, and got right up off the page. But when did I first learn that that was what they ought to do?

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman"The Sleeping Beauty is one of those stories that I've 'always known,' just as it's one of those stories 'we all know.' I wasn't aware that it held any particular meaning or fascination for me until, along in my sixties, I came on Sylvia Townsend Warner's evocation of the tale in a tiny poem (it is in her Collected Poems):

  The Sleeping Beauty woke:
  The spit began to turn,
  The woodman cleared the brake, 
  The gardener mowed the lawn.
  Woe's me! And must one kiss
  Revoke the silent house, the birdsong
  wilderness?

"As poetry will do, those words took me far beyond themselves, straight through the hedge of thorns, into the secret place. For all its sweet brevity, the question asked in the last two lines is a total 'revisioning' of the story, a subversion of it. Almost, it revokes it.

Sleeping Beauty by Trina Schart Hyman

"The pall of sleep that lies upon the house and grounds is supposedly the effect of a malicious spell, a curse; the prince's kiss that breaks the spell is supposed to provide a happy ending. Townsend Warner asks, was it a curse, after all? The thorn-hedge broken, the cooks growling at their cook-pots, the peasants laboring again at their sowing or harvesting, the cat leaping upon the mouse, Father yawning and scratching his head, Mother jumping up sure the servants haven't been misbehaving while she was asleep, Beauty staring in some confusion at the smiling young man who is going to carry her off and make her a wife -- everything back to normal, everyday, commonplace, ordinary life. The silence, the peace, the magic, gone.Sleeping Beauty by Roberto Innocenti

"Really, it is a grand, deep question the poet asks. It takes me into the story as no Freudian or Jungian or Bettleheimian reduction of it does. It lets me see what I think the story is about.

"I think the story is about that still center: 'the silent house, the birdsong wilderness.'

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"That is the image we retain. The unmoving smoke about the chimney top. The spindle fallen from the motionless hand. The cat asleep near the sleeping mouse. No noise, no bustle, no busyness. Utter peace. Nothing moving but the slow, subtle growth of the thorn bushes, ever thicker and higher all about the boundary, and the birds who fly over the high hedge, singing, and pass on. It is the secret garden; it is Eden; it is the dream of utter, sunlit safety; it is the changeless kingdom.

From the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"Childhood, yes. Celibacy, virginity, yes. A glimpse of adolescence: the place hidden in the heart and mind of a girl of twelve or fifteen. There she is alone, all by herself, content, and nobody knows her. She is thinking: Don't wake me. Don't know me. Let me be. At the same time she is probably shouting out the windows of other corners of her being, Here I am, do come, oh hurry up and come! And she lets her hair down and the prince comes thundering up, and they get married, and the world goes on. Which it wouldn't do if she stayed in the hidden corner and renounced love marriage childbearing motherhood and all that.

Lady in the Meadow by Kinuko Y. Craft

"But at least she had a little while by herself, in that house that was hers, the garden of silence. Too many Beauties never even know there is such a place."

Photograph by Katerina Plotnikova

A detail from Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series

Pictures: Four Sleeping Beauty illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman and one by Roberto Innocenti, three panels from the Briar Rose series by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, "Lady in a Meadow" by Kinuko Y. Craft, "Woman & Fox" by Russian surrealist photographer Katerina Plotnikova, and a detail from Burne-Jones' Briar Rose series. Words: The passage above is from "The Wilderness Within" by Ursula K. Le Guin, first published in Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, Second Expanded Edition, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Anchor Books/Random House, 2002). In the essay, Le Guin goes on to discuss the ways in which her story "The Poacher" was inspired by the fairy tale and Sylvia Townsend Warner's poem.

Related posts, on Sleeping Beauty: Enchanted Sleep, Fairy Blessings, and The 13th Fairy. On Sylvia Townsend Warner: Hen wives, spinsters, and Lolly Willowes.


Ursula Le Guin on the truth of fantasy

Studio Muse 1

Like just about everyone else in the Mythic Arts field, I've been rocked by the death of Ursula Le Guin -- not only one of the greatest writers of our age, but also a vital, necessary figure for my generation of fantasy writers, editors, and illustrators. We entered the field in the late '70s and '80s when women were few and still unwelcome by a daunting number of professional colleagues, readers, and reviewers. Ursula was a guiding light, encouraging some of us directly, and many more through the pages of her books. In honor of her influential presence in American Arts & Letters for half a century (her first novel was published in 1966), I've gathered together all of the posts from the Myth & Moor archives related to her work. You'll find them here. The following post first appeared on Myth & Moor two years ago.

From The Language of the Night by Ursula K. Le Guin:

Dragon hatchling by Alan Lee"I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.

"For fantasy is true, of course. It isn't factual, but it's true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that's precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

Dragon by Alan Lee

On my desk

"So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy -- they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called 'The Emperor's New Clothes'). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren't real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that's more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: 'Unicorns aren't real.' And that fact is one that never got anyone anywhere (except in the story 'The Unicorn in the Garden,' by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin.) It is by such statements as, 'Once upon a time there was a dragon,' or 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' -- it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth." 

Unicorn by Alan Lee & John Howe

Studio Muse 2Words: The passage above is from "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" by Ursula K. Le Guin, which first appeared in PNLA Quarterly 38 (1974), and can also be found in her essay collection The Language of the Night (GP Putnams, 1979). Drawings: The two dragon drawings are by Alan Lee, and the unicorn drawing by Alan Lee & John Howe. Photographs: A quiet morning the studio. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artists.


Harvesting stories

Flowers and hills  Corrary Farm

From Words Are My Matter by Ursula K. Le Guin:

"Gary Snyder gave us the image of experience as compost. Compost is stuff, junk, garbage, anything, that's turned to dirt by sitting around a while. It involves silence, darkness, time, and patience. From compost, whole gardens grow.

"It can be useful to think of writing as gardening. You plant the seeds, but each plant will take its own way and shape. The gardener's in control, yes; but plants are living, willful things. Every story has to find its own way to the light. Your great tool as a gardener is your imagination.

Corrary Farm

"Young writers often think -- are taught to think -- that a story starts with a message. That is not my experience. What's important when you start is simply this: you have a story you want to tell. A seedling that wants to grow. Something in your inner experience is forcing itself towards the light. Attentively and carefully and patiently, you can encourage that, let it happen. Don't force it; trust it. Watch it, water it, let it grow.

Polytunnels  Corrary Farm

Organic vegetables

"As you write a story, if you can let it become itself, tell itself fully and truly, you may discover what its really about, what it says, why you wanted to tell it. It may be a surprise to you. You may have thought you planted a dahlia, and look what came up, an eggplant! Fiction is not information transmission; it is not message-sending. The writing of fiction is endlessly surprising to the writer.

Corrary Farm  turf-roofed office

"Like a poem, a story says what it has to say it the only way it can be said, and that is the exact words of the story itself. Why is why the words are so important, why it takes so long to learn how to get the words right. Why you need silence, darkness, time, patience, and a real solid knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar.

"Truthful imagining from experience is recognizable, shared by its readers."

Howard in the yurt cafe  Corrary Farm

Welcoming committee

Words: The passage above is from "Making Up Stories," published in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life & Books by Ursula K. Le Guin (Small Beer Press, 2016). The poem in the picture captions is from Circles on the Water by Marge Piercy (Knopf, 1988). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Corray Farm on Scotland's west coast, near Glenelg, photographed on our trip north in June: polytunnels, turf-roofed office, Howard reading in the yurt cafe, and the four-footed welcoming committee.