Sunday, April 26, 2009

Words from the Wizard about Writing

If you go over to Ursula K. LeGuin's website, there's a section of quotes and thoughts about writing, surrounded by huge fields of thoughts and writings about many other things, as well as links to her published works, many of them never out of print. The Earthsea books are the least of it.

Here's something Ms. LeGuin says about writing, as though it came direct from the wizard's mouth:

A Few Words to a Young Writer:

Socrates said, "The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." He wasn't talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.


This is the radical honesty of poetry laid bare. Don't forget that LeGuin is also a poet; her often dreamlike, mythic way of telling a story, of describing the details of its context, of the associative turn of thought that can turn a narrative suddenly into a new creature, are all present in her shortest poems as well as in her novels. There are many sections of poetic prose in her stories, that bring the language to a higher and deeper level. One of the tenets of wizardry is truthful speech, and impeccable care with words: say nothing that is false, lest it become true. If wrods shape your world, you are responsible for what you say. Sometimes silence is your best option: say nothing, damage nothing. Be still, send nothing astray.

It's hard to get writers to shut up, though, even as wizards tend to be rather laconic unless there's something really worth saying. If you notice in the literature, even the chattiest wizards use their voluble loquaciousness to say much of nothing; a smoke screen of small talk, if you will. Much smoke, concealing the fire behind the words.

That's why misuse of language is offensive to both writer and wizard. Gandalf, when condemning Grima Wormtongue as the liar and manipulator he is, says this in so many words; and by their own words have liars been known to manifest their own punishments. Caught themselves in the web of lies that they have woven.

There are also turns of plot in many LeGuin that shock in the moment, yet seem necessary and unavoidable after the tale is seen as a whole. The shock is the same surprise that life brings to us, in all its unpredictability and terrible beauty. Trust a poet to speak truly to this; trust a wizard to live as though this were foundational truth, not words but a way of being, of living. Such shocks in stories are realistic, lies that give us the truth. What is literary realism but the illusion of the lie being what seems to be like everyday living? There are so many kinds of realism.

A writer is a person who cares what words mean. I am always astonished when I interact with writers who seems to feel that being sloppy and imprecise in their communications is acceptable. As though being impeccable in their word was necessary only for their writerly products, and dispensable for everyday chat. I find it hard to trust such writers: If they're sloppy in this area, how might they be sloppy elsewhere? If they don't take care to be truthful speakers, how can you know that they know the difference between what can be said and what cannot?

Wizardry and writing are not that far apart, it seems. Trust a writer of tales about wizardry to know.

LeGuin has published a version of the Tao Te Ching, a perhaps unique translation of that classic. It reads more like poetry than philosophy in her version, which is what it was, originally: metaphors and analogies that reveal the truth of the Tao without ever killing it by speaking of it too directly. The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. There is a resonance in this version that gives it buoyancy and lightness: the lightest of touches on its subject, the finest brush hovering above the scroll, barely tickling it.

In Earthsea, so much depends on the power of language, on the various languages used by characters in the books, especially the original language of the Making, which is the language of wizardry, of the dragons, and in which one cannot lie. Language is a central concern in Earthsea, too, because the proper naming of a person or thing gives a wizard power to know its essence, and be able to influence it. In 1985, a one-page LeGuin story appeared in The New Yorker, titled "She Unnames Them." This is one of my favorite short stories of all time. In it, Eve, starts giving back the names of everything that Adam has named. The story begins:

Most of them accepted namelessness with the perfect indifference with which they had so long accepted and ignored their names. Whales and dolphins, seals and sea otters consented with particular alacrity, sliding into anonymity as into their element.

There is something so right and true about that: what we call those beings who have their own lives, indifferent to our own except where we might impinge on theirs, have no need for what we call them.

As the story progresses, names become less and less used: the writing style reflects the action of unnaming, both humorously and seriously. This is a bit of a writing tour de force: to speak is to do, to create and uncreate, and how rare it is to find a story that enacts what it describes, as it describes it.

As the woman once named Eve, giving her name back, says to Adam in her last conversation with him before leaving:

I resolutely put anxiety away, went to Adam, and said, "You and your father lent me this—gave it to me, actually. It's been really useful, but it doesn't exactly seem to fit very well lately. But thanks very much! It's really been very useful."

And the short story ends with:

In fact, I had only just then realized how hard it would have been to explain myself. I could not chatter away as I used to do, taking it all for granted. My words must be as slow, as new, as single, as tentative as the steps I took going down the path away from the house, between the dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.

This enacts how not being able to name a thing sometimes gives one the gift of being forced to observe it just as it is, without labels that preconceive or veil understanding. This is the Zen master's and the wizard's eye: seeing what's there, and having to discover its name by seeing, by knowing. And to give a new name to something so familiar, that with its new name it becomes something entirely new, undergoing a sea-change into something rich and strange.

That's what poetry does, for me, as a poet writing a poem, and being the poem's first reader: find new names that are more true to the essences of what I see then the received labels that language has given me. Too often the nouns are labels that prevent us from seeing what's really there: we look at the luggage tag, and think we've seen what's inside the suitcase. it becomes too easy to quickly assign, categorize, dismiss, and move on. A little string of mind-forged luggage-tags that are signs that stand in for the actual thing without in fact encompassing or comprehending its true nature.

Both poets and wizards know that to truly know a thing, sometimes you must unname it first, before you can see it for what it truly is. And only then will it offer you its true name, in the language of the Making.

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7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Isn't there any way you can make your font size a little bigger?

The size it is now I find difficult to read. Or maybe, like I do, you're just writing pretty much for yourself.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Anyone can adjust their own font size default in their own browser. I'm using the template provided by Blogger. I can alter it, but I don't see the need most of the time; and my essays are long enough to scroll through already. Some would no doubt say, too long.

But you can default set your own browser to read larger sizes. There are settings that can be adjusted on any and all browsers. And there is also adaptability & accomodation software available for most operating systems.

Take a little initiative, please. I will make such a global change only if the vast majority of readers want it. Frankly, it's a lot easier to do it on your end.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

There is an art and science to writing. I have to concede that there is also a business end to writing too. I would love to carry the banner with Le Guin and slag off all the lawyers but they have their place too. And when you look at a legal document you start to truly appreciate the skill it takes to write a poem and get anyone to half-understand it. Words are so damn evasive in their meanings. While I've been lying here on my back this past week I've been mulling over a post on that very subject so I won't say too much here or I'll end up writing the damn thing in your comments.

I agree totally that often silence is best. If you don't know what you want to say or how to say it then keep your peace until you do. This is one reason I never try and force a poem out when I clearly don't have the words to express myself. I've tried to write about referred pain this week and I have maybe three lines that I might be able to do something with some day.

On sloppiness I do have this to say, one can be too perfect. I have an interview to do when I feel better and the first question I've been asked is: What do you aspire to? The answer is perfection, it always has been but over the years I have come to realise that there is perfection and there is perfection, absolute perfection and relative perfection; a hammer is perfect for inserting nails into a lump of wood but not much cop for eating your yoghurt. And so we have to wonder whether there might be the perfect combination of words for any given poem. I think not. I aim to get close enough so my readers can see the meaning from where they're standing without standing on their tippy-toes – close enough for government work, as my wife is fond of saying.

I love the bits you quote from the story about Eve – very witty. I like the notion of giving back words that we no longer really need. I, for one, would love to give 'anxiety' back; I'm well and truly done with it.

Enjoyable post, Art. If I wasn't so uncomfortable I could talk a lot more about it but I'm trying not to overdo myself. There's no way I'm going to catch up on all the reading I've missed so a line has to be drawn.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Dave King said...

Interesting and useful post. I shall chase up your link.

6:05 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Jim—

My thoughts on precision and sloppiness echo yours insofar as I think that perfectionism can be a blocker rather than a helper. But perfectionism is a psychological issue, too, a compulsion, a kind of obsessive disorder. We all know writers who never publish anything because they never get it right, they're always revising. There is a line between making that kind of perfecting-the-work process work FOR you, and when you cross that line it starts to work AGAINST you.

I always struggle towards making a poem that best I can do in that moment, but I learned long ago that after that point, you have to let it go. I will not revise after a certain point. After which, if it isn't working, it's usually best to scrap it completely, and start over again from the original inspiration that got me going before I bogged myself down in perfectionism. Few poems are salvageable once they've been revised too many times. Or all spontaneity is lost, which can be just as bad.

Glad you enjoyed the post. Hope you can get vertical again sometime soon.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hi, Dave—

Thanks! Glad especially that you found it useful.

10:06 PM  
Blogger mand said...

"The misuse of language induces evil in the soul." I had forgotten that, and needed it re-said now. Timely! Thanx.

12:50 PM  

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