Because the only thing I like better than successfully developing a series of blog posts is to start a theme and then abandon it, I’ve decided to start a Writers Doing it Right series. Part #1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part #3 is here. Part #4 is here, Part #5 is here. This week I found this awesome interview with Ursula K. Le Guin from the Oregon Gazette-Times a few years ago.
Gazette-Times: Many young people dream of becoming writers, but very often those dreams derail by the time they’re out of high school and are forced into making “practical” choices that leave them little time or energy for creative work. What advice would you give to someone just starting out, to help them protect or nurture those dreams?
Le Guin: The choice to train to be an artist of any kind is a risky one. Art’s a vocation, and often pays little for years and years – or never. Kids who want to be dancers, musicians, painters, writers, need more than dreams. They need a serious commitment to learning how to do what they want to do, and working at it through failure and discouragement. Dreams are lovely, but passion is what an artist needs – a passion for the work. That’s all that can carry you through the hard times. So I guess my advice to the young writer is a warning, and a wish: You’ve chosen a really, really hard job that probably won’t pay you beans – so get yourself some kind of salable skill to live on! And may you find the reward of your work in the work itself. – may it bring you joy.
G-T: What is your writing schedule like these days? Is working very structured for you, or do you work as inspiration strikes? Describe, if possible, an “average” day as far as your writing is concerned.
Le Guin: I never had any real schedule, I’m too sloppy, and I can’t force my work. If I have a novel going I write two or three hours in the morning, and maybe do some revising in the afternoon, and all the rest of the time the novel is going on somewhere in my head. If I don’t have anything particular going, as is the case right now, I wander around in my head listening for a story or a poem. I spend a lot of time doing mail and other stuff, but all the time I am listening for the story, or the poem, or whatever it is that might come.
G-T: It seems that science fiction and fantasy writing were long considered a male-dominated field. Did you ever experience difficulties as a woman writer in the genre?
Le Guin: I had some gender-related problems, sure, but they were pretty unimportant – I was lucky. Anecdote: I was the second woman ever published by Playboy. My agent (a woman) submitted the story as by “U.K. Le Guin,” and when the editors found out that I was Ursula, not Ulysses, they asked to keep the initials, “because our readership is frightened by women writers.” I said, “There, there, boys, now don’t be frightened, it’s O.K., I’m U.K.”
And then they asked me for an autobiographical note! So I wrote: “The stories of U.K. Le Guin are not written by U.K. Le Guin, but by another person of the same name.” I figured that might puzzle their readers, but not frighten them.
G-T: Do you think that an author’s gender plays a part in how a story is told, or how a reader might relate to the piece?
Le Guin: Oh, yes, I do! For a long time I wrote pretty much as a man, and men were at the center of most of my stories. Learning how to write as a woman was the most important thing I did in the middle of my life. I know that if I hadn’t learned that, I’d have stopped writing, or stopped writing well.
I’m afraid that the effect gender has on how a reader reads is often negative, in a quite specific sense: men often make assumptions about how women write, slightly negative or patronising assumptions, which are clearly visible in reviews, and also in awards, which tend to go to male writers.
G-T: As a writer, as a human, what gives you hope about the future?
Le Guin: The age, and the vastness, and the vast complexity of the earth and all its creatures. No matter how we try to cut it down to our size, we’ll fail; and in our failure lies our hope.
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Ever since a soon-to-be-ex-sorta-not-really-boyfriend put The Left Hand of Darkness into the left hand of MKP, I was smitten. In case you’ve never read it, it’s about a group of people who only have gender identity or sexuality once a month, when they shift into kemmer and each can become either male or female depending on “pheremonal negotiation.” The rest of the time people are people. Revolutionary.
I really appreciate that Le Guin acknowledges writing as a man, and making a conscious effort to begin writing as a woman. You will remember my thoughts on boy fiction, etc… Since I don’t write fiction, I pretty much only write in my own voice, though tone varies. Usually when I read I actually assign a pitch to the “sound” of the speaker’s voice in my head – it’s kind of a synesthetic reaction, I guess. Lucky for me, writing (and now the obsessive tracking site statistics that comes with it) is its own reward.
Love the point about wandering around with the story in your head too – as much as I love the “get your butt in the seat and write” advice, I just get sidetracked down an internet wormhole when I try that, whereas sitting down to write, really write, for a few hours is more productive if I can wander away or start compulsively cleaning random things in the meantime.
Obvi, I love using my initials too, inspired by Le Guin, A.O. Scott and more recently, R.A. Dickey. But I don’t think I’ll be trying to get my foot in Playboy’s door anytime soon. How hilarious to be so obsessed with women that you’ll buy a magazine to stare at them naked but are paralyzed with fear at the idea they might actually have something to say. And by hilarious I mean pathetic.