Ursula Le Guin’s Advice: There Are No Recipes

A hand writes blah, blah, blah across a page
Image by Flood.

The process of rewriting can be difficult. When you have loved a particular essay as much as I have loved the one I am now rewriting, the act of cutting something can be agonizing.

Making Something Good

Writer Nancy Jean Moore asked Le Guin, “How do you make something good?”

If Le Guin were an internet writing guru I suspect she would have offered up advice like “show, don’t tell” or “write what you know.” Le Guin would have then followed up with a proposal to buy her ebook/course/one-on-one coaching sessions.

We might have said yes to the offer. We were inexperienced and scared and wanted a prepackaged recipe for success.  Le Guin knows this:

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Le Guin, however, is an actual writer, not a writer who writes about writing, which is what so many internet gurus are. Le Guin has written the Left Hand of Darkness, a book published in 1970 with characters who are neither male nor female, and the Earthsea series for children. So when she says there are no recipes for writing, she knows what she is talking about.

But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

The poet Theodore Roethke said it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

Keep Alive and Write

I’ve chased a guru a time or two. Signed up for some online classes with varying results. Whether or not the classes improved my writing, I can’t say. But I can say the classes revealed to me an almost desperate need to get better as a writer. As I read more and harder writing, I now know how incredibly awful my writing is.

Writing is just plain hard.

There is no way through except to keep reading and writing and tolerate the shiite I write. Desiring an easy way through this affliction to write won’t make it so. And I’ve tried.

I’ve dangled the carrot of a MFA program in front of me, more than once. But I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s not the money even.

An MFA program, in the words of Siddhartha Deb, would not be my friend. Deb continues:

You know that writing is a political, ethical thing and that you will have to look outside the professional world of both N.Y.C. and the M.F.A. in order to keep that vision of writing alive. You know (James) Baldwin’s words, and you repeat them to yourself every day. “Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say.”

No recipes. No advice. Find a way to keep alive and write.

What Keeps You Alive?

Writing these newsletter pieces about the how of writing keeps me alive, and honest, too. By promising to deliver something to you twice a week, I force myself to write and to read. And I’m creating something I need, rather desperately it seems, a place where writing is more than just starting (ala Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art) and more than just finishing. It’s about striving and sweating and suffering through tremendous periods where all I am managing to do, in the words of Stephen King, is shovel shit from a sitting position.

Thank you to each of you who has responded personally to my newsletter articles. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and time so very much.

In closing, what you are doing to keep alive and write?


Reading Exercise: The How of Language

Sentences from Lord of th Rings
Sentences from Lord of the Rings

The how of language, argues Sven Birkets, is the sentence. [1. Sven Birkets, “What Remains,” AGNI Magazine, 69, 2009, 1-8.] This makes sense. Each writer uses sentences to create a certain style or vibe. If the author has skill, the vibe may be unique. An author with skill can also create a recognizable voice, where she can reveal what she thinks about the world.

I’ve read several novels and (a memoir) recently, all with a first person point-of-view (POV). Yet Mathias Enard’s Zone, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and  Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans offer distinct narrators simply by how they construct their sentences. Yes, Bechel’s book is a memoir. But her sentence construction, even without the tremendous graphics that accompany her sentences, can teach us something about voice and control and the how of writing.

When I read, I try to ask myself what the author has done to achieve a particular effect in me. Some things I ask myself, in addition to POV,  are: What tense does the author use? How about punctuation? Does he use long, elliptical sentences or short ones with punch? Active or passive verbs?

Such studies can result in more tools I can use in my own writing.

What follows are the first several lines of each book. I would say sentences but Enard’s book is one long sentence broken up into nine chapters.

Each captures my imagination in some way. Enard’s stream of consciousness used by a character coming to terms with a brutal past contrasts with Bechdel’s relatively short sentences, controlled and tinged with sadness (but that may be me). Ishiguro’s style choices – longish, elliptical sentences – work well as he pursues philosophical questions about the nature of memory, family and friendships.

The Zone, by Mathias Enard [2. Mathias Enard, The Zone, trans. by Charlotte Mandel, (Rochester: Open Books, 2010), 5.]

everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, everything rings falser a little metallic like the sound of two bronze weapons clashing they make you come back to yourself without letting you get out of anything it’s a fine prison, you travel with a lot of things, a child you didn’t bear a little Czech crystal star a talisman beside the snow you watch melting, after the re-routing of the Gulf Stream prelude to the Ice Age, stalactites in Rome and icebergs in Egypt, it keeps raining in Milan I missed my plane I had 1,500 kilometers on the train ahead of me now I have 600 still to go

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel [3. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (New York: First Mariner Books, 2007), 3.]

Like many fathers, mine could occasionally be prevailed on for a spot of “airplane.” As he launched me, my full weight would fall on the pivot point between his feet and my stomach. It was discomfort well worth the rare physical contact, and certainly worth the moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro [4. Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans (New York: Vintage International, 2001), 3.]

It was the summer of 1923, the summer I came down from Cambridge, when despite my aunt’s wishes that I return to Shropshire, I decided my future lay in the capital and took up a small flat at Number 14b Bedford Gardens in Kensington. I remember it now as the most wonderful of summers. After years of being surrounded by fellows, both at school and at Cambridge, I took great pleasure in my own company.

Quite a difference, yes? No particular choice is a wrong one except when the sentences work against the themes and characterizations pursued by the author.

What do you learn from your favorite authors and/or books when you write out the first few lines of each text? Anything you can incorporate in your own writing?


How to Read Like a Writer

A woman reads a book in a coffee shop
The moment when you’re reading a book…by Mendak

Reading like a Writer is a Writer’s Secret Weapon

When we read like a writer, we read to learn about how to write better.

Yes, we may read for understanding to better comprehend an author’s ideas, but more than that we read to understand what choices an author has made to tell the story and why. What overall structure has the author chosen? What tense did she use? What impact, if any, does the setting have on the novel? Does the author use satire or irony? If so, how?

As we read, we note the choices authors make. Then we can ask ourselves  what happens to a favorite text if the author had made different choices. Holden Caufield would have been a very different character had J.D. Salinger chosen the elliptical, indirect style of Kazuo Ishiguro.

Reading for reading’s sake versus reading for writing’s sake is like admiring Coco Chanel’s fashions compared to possessing the knowledge and skill to design and sew a dress yourself while riffing on some of Coco’s tricks. Writes David Jauss:

“[R]eading won’t help you much unless you learn to read like a writer. You must look at a book the way a carpenter looks at a house someone else built, examining the details in order to see how it was made.” [1. David Jauss, “Articles of Faith” in Creative Writing in America: Theory and Pedagogy (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1989)]

The Unreliable Narrator in When We Were Orphans

Let me share with you an example from a book I love. Christopher Banks narrates Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans. As a child both of his parents disappeared within weeks of each other while he and they were living in Shanghai.

Banks goes to great lengths to tell us a great number of times that his loss has had little impact on him. He is fine. But with great skill Ishiguro begins to undermine Bank’s narrative. An old school friend refers to Banks as “odd bird” during their time at school. Banks takes great offense at this remark. He believes himself to have been outgoing, cheery and so like other boys at school.

Another person claims Banks was a moody, withdrawn child, especially after his parents’ disappearance. Again, Banks is incensed, quite deeply actually. We begin to notice that how Banks sees himself and how others see him are quite different.

Indeed, in one telling scene, we see how far apart they are.

Banks is at wedding reception. The brother of the groom approaches him and apologizes profusely for the manner in which many of the guests have been treating him. Banks claims these people are his friends and has not taken any offense. Again the brother of the groom apologizes and tells Banks he is going to confront his abusers. Banks again claims they are his friends and that nothing is wrong.

Ishiguro’s Choice Influences His Characterization

Ishiguro chooses skillfully to never show us any of the actions or utterances of the guests. We know the brother is incensed. He is in fact quite offended by their behavior. And we know that Banks’ says repeatedly nothing is wrong. But we have no idea who said what to or about Banks.

In this scene Ishiguro has shown us the increasingly profound unreliability of Banks’ narration.

Ishiguro could have chosen to show us some of the behaviors in question. But that would have allowed us to know with certainty that Banks is a troubled and broken man. And that would have ruined the mystery at the heart of the story.

The central mystery of the story is not what happened to Banks’ parents but what has happened to Banks, and, as we begin to see how damaged he is, whether he has any hold on reality at all.

Ishiguro might have also shown us the disparity between Banks’ awareness of himself and how others perceive him through another scene. That might have worked, too. The key is that he chose not to relate any specific actions, behaviors or statements of the guests.

My takeaway of this scene is a new tool that will allow me to show an unreliable narrator or unreliable character in a natural and convincing way. This is one example, I hope, of how reading like a writer can improve your writing.

Writing Exercise: The Reluctant I

The “3 A.M. Epiphany” offers a wealth of writing exercises. Author Brian Kitely writes “This book is a collection of fiction exercise instructions whose main goal is to teach writers how to let their fiction find itself.” [1. Introduction, 1.]

The first series of exercises address various Points of View. He makes a compelling case for dropping the omniscient third person P.O.V. While I agree this may make sense for some types of fiction, the big money makers, mysteries and romance, almost always use omniscient third. Rather than dispense with it, I prefer to use it when it is the most effective way to tell the story.

The Reluctant I

I have chosen to share with you my draft for The Reluctant I. “The point of this exercise,” Kitely writes, “is to imagine a narrator who is less interested in himself than what he is observing. You can make your narrator someone who sees an interesting event in which [s]he is not necessarily a participant. Or you can make him self-effacing, yet a major participant in the events related.” [2. Exercise 1. 1.] Write for 500 words.

Please share you feedback with me. I would love to hear it.


The old radio blared out a British sounding voice. Johnny stood up so fast he hit his head on a rafter. The voice continued, muddled as though the man was speaking through the water at the bottom of a toilet bowl.

“There’s no plugs up here!” Johnny almost shouted. He even picked up the radio and found the plug but it still kept talking.

“But what is he saying?”

“I don’t know. It’s not like this piece of junk has a subtitles switch.” Johnny’s parents watched art-house movies and forced Johnny to watch them. “A lot of the times they smoke marijuana and watch the movies and fall asleep half way through. They talk like they watch the whole thing. But they almost never do.”

The British voice said “I find it hard to describe adequately the horrible things I’ve seen and heard.”

“Whoa. The hair on my neck just stood up.”


The radio stopped speaking, or maybe the British guy just stopped talking. Just as quickly as it had started it stopped.

It’s not like Johnny unplugged the radio, because it was never plugged in to begin with or even dropped on the floor to stop the voice. Though that would have interrupted everything. The crashing sounds.

No. His voice faded out. Like when a villain falls to their death and their voices get smaller and quieter.

“Have you ever heard this radio before?”

“When Papap was alive, he never played it. He had a different radio then, more modern. Like the 80s kind your Jerry has.”

Johnny rolled his eyes and turned his head away and worked his jaw hard. Jerry was his step-dad, and they didn’t get along. Ever, really. Jerry even tried to have Johnny institutionalized because Johnny wears dresses a lot. Jerry got close to having his way but then he came one night – I saw this for myself – and his face was destroyed. Both eyes starting to swell shut and a torn lip and ripped shirt. “You’re not fucking leaving you little cunt,” he yelled at Johnny while Johnny’s mother – a waste of human being for sure – started crying with “oh baby what happened to you” and Jerry pushed her away and stomped off to his recreation room (said using air quotes for emphasis) to kill his pain with drugs. “Hey, you know what I found out,” Johnny told me at school a week later. “My dad’s father paid some guys to beat the shit out of Jerry and said if he put me in the looney bin they’d cut his balls off and sew them shut in his mouth!” Johnny choked he laughed so hard.

Johnny’s dad had died in a car crash when he was three, and Johnny never spoke about a grandfather before. So I don’t know who Johnny was really talking about. But whoever did what they did, it kept Johnny out of shock treatments.