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 about once 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?