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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Dancing at the Edge of the World

I've been reading Ursula K. Le Guin's essay collection, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (Grove Press, c1989). I'm skipping around through the entries because she's invited me to do so. In the table of contents, she's even given me a guide, so I know if the article is mostly about writing, feminism, travel, social responsibility, or some combination of the four. Twenty to thirty-three years later, her Talks and Essays and Book Reviews remain relevant.

My favorite essays, so far, concern writing and literature, since feminisim, for me, is a given. I particularly enjoy Some Thoughts on Narrative, an essay based on a lecture she gave at Portland State University in 1980; a brief essay on World-Making from 1981; the page and a half Conflict from 1987, which made me laugh out loud; and the wonderful Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, also from 1987, where she discusses the writing process and her personal approach to writing. I don't want to distill any of these essays, because they should be read in their entirety, but I'd like to share a few choice quotes:

"The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, from Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?, 1987

"Only the imagination can get us out of the bind of the eternal present, inventing or hypothesizing or pretending or discovering a way that reason can then follow into the infinity of options, a clue through the labyrinths of choice, a golden string, the story, leading us to the freedom that is properly human, the freedom open to those whose minds can accept unreality." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, from Some Thoughts on Narrative, 1980

In this collection, also, is her sensible advice on the issue of censorship, after her classic Science Fiction novel, The Lathe of Heaven, was challenged at a school library near her home:

"To provide the best: everyone agrees on that (even the people who vote against school levies). But we don't and we can't agree on what books are the best. And therefore what is vital is that we provide variety, abundance, plenty- not books that reflect one body of opinion of doctrine, not books that one group or sect thinks good, but the broadest, richest range of intellectual and artistic material available." ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, from Whose Lathe?, 1984

This enjoyable quote comes from an essay about the "rules" of writing she published on her official web site, http://www.ursulakleguin.com/:

"As for 'Write what you know,' I was regularly told this as a beginner. I think it’s a very good rule and have always obeyed it. I write about imaginary countries, alien societies on other planets, dragons, wizards, the Napa Valley in 22002. I know these things. I know them better than anybody else possibly could, so it’s my duty to testify about them. I got my knowledge of them, as I got whatever knowledge I have of the hearts and minds of human beings, through imagination working on observation. Like any other novelist. All this rule needs is a good definition of 'know.'" ~ Ursula K. Le Guin from On Rules of Writing, or, Riffing on Rechy

Le Guin generously offers several articles about the writing process on her web site, under a section called About Writing, well worth reading by authors of all types of fiction. You can also read a Biographical Sketch.

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Of the five essay collections by Ursula K. Le Guin I've discussed or cited on this blog, for overall content and usefulness to the writer, I recommend Steering the Craft and The Wave in the Mind the most; but anything written by Le Guin, fiction or nonfiction, in any genre, or on any topic, always stimulates and enlightens.

To read my other articles including selected quotes and information about Ursula K. Le Guin's essay collections, please click on her name in the labels below this post.


  1. I really have to get my hands on these books. They sounds like something I would thoroughly enjoy.
    I particularly like the quote about the story being brought to life by the reader.

  2. Hi Lori,
    I think you would enjoy them. The more I read from Dancing at the Edge of the World, the more I like it. She makes me think in new ways.

  3. Hi Annie,
    Interesting post. I was pleased to see the quote about "Write what you know" because I've been reading the quote "Write what you don't know". Thanks for the links.

  4. Hi Joanne,

    I think what she's saying is that we know ourselves best of all, and that we can trust that instinct to write from what we know, not only of concrete things, but the life of our own imagination. This is the quote from Carson McCullers from an earlier post, that addresses the same concept:

    "It is only with imagination and reality that you get to know the thing a novel requires. Reality alone has never been that important to me. A teacher once said that one should write about one's own back yard; and by this, I suppose, she meant one should write about the things that one knows most intimately. But what is more intimate than one's own imagination? The imagination combines memory with insight, combines reality with the dream." ~ Carson McCullers

  5. Annie,
    I love Le Guin and own all her essay books. Thanks for going on about her, like I do. I've heard her speak in Portland in person and do some reading. If I can grow in wisdom and craft like that, I will be a very happy crone. *Crone* meant here in the most positive sense of the word.

  6. Hi Ripley,

    Lucky you! I'd love to hear Ursula K. Le Guin speak. I heard Joyce Carol Oates at a conference, and actually got to ask her a question. They're both seventy years old, and definitely not "crones," though I know you mean it as someone wise and self-assured.