The first thing you learn when you start teaching writing is that you will never teach anyone how to write well. It is a cruel joke universities play on students of the humanities. As you prepare to enter a classroom, they assign you an impossible task, a task that they mask with a label like “Introduction to Rhetoric” or “Exhibition Composition”. Here are 20 undergraduates, they say. Show them how to get their prose to sing. Looking down at your new charges, you begin to speak. Your voice breaks. They see the fear in your eyes.
In this light, there is something almost pathetic about most writing books, whether viewed as teaching aids or personal aids. Flickering candles in dimly lit rooms, they offer little help to those who are truly in the dark.
This is the danger that hangs over the work of Ursula K. Le Guin Leading the craft. A wonderful writer, Le Guin has always been attentive to the smallest details of his own prose. In his fantasy novel A Magician of Earthsea, for example, she relies heavily on words with Germanic roots to convey the crudeness of her windswept world. When trying to help others write with similar skills, she must also take into account the insurmountability of her task.
Based on workshops Le Guin began teaching “narrative prose writers” almost 20 years ago, Leading the craft– substantially updated compared to its 1998 edition–presents itself as “a 21st-Guide of the century to navigate the sea of history. He covers his bets from the first pages of his introduction, insisting that “this is not a beginner’s book”. Skip this initial warning and you will soon find that it is modestly intended “to clarify and heighten your awareness of certain elements of prose writing and certain techniques and modes of storytelling.” Whatever else it offers, it won’t teach you how to write.
It can, however, help you unlearn lessons from those who have taught you badly. Le Guin protested on several occasions against the “false rules”: eccentric, almost inexplicable principles such as the idea that sentences should not begin with the construction “There is”. These arbitrary diktats are, of course, the creations of those who found it impossible to teach writing but were forced to try anyway. I was there in my free time in class, I found myself offering shortcuts instead of systems. Wrong rules are a testament to educational failure, but at least they make you feel like you are communicating something, even a wrong one.
Nodding at such encounters with the impractical, Le Guin tends to come up with justifications before coming up with his own rules, and those justifications soon give way to something bigger. “The important thing for a writer”, she suggests, is “to know what you are doing with your language and why”. Unpack that Why often means appealing to deeper principles, leaving the writing itself beholden to a higher cause. So, for example, she asserts that it is “the moral duty of a writer … to use language thoughtfully and well.” She’s not talking about simple accuracy here, but clarity, about the work we do to make sure others know what we mean. And she makes one point quite clearly: You don’t have to agree with the exact reasons she offers, she just wants to make sure you have them.
Ultimately, Leading the craft elevates storytelling above all other values. By simply opposing it to “giving information [or] explaining, “the goals of” most writing lessons … in school or college, “Le Guin states that this is the first tenet of almost all prose. “The main duty of a narrative sentence,” she writes, “is to keep the story going. “
In Le Guin’s hands, this commitment to the narrative drive is the basis of both critical judgments and the choices of a writer. Sometimes this just serves to explain her other precepts, such as when she explains that changing the tense of the verb too often interrupts the flow of a story, pulling the reader out of her spell. Elaborating on this obligation to spin the story, she writes: “You are the Pied Piper, your phrases are the tune you play and your readers are the children of Hamelin (or, if you prefer, the rats). Every choice a writer makes, she suggests at such times, should be a choice in the service of history, not an arbitrary rule.
Le Guin’s emphasis on history inspires some idiosyncratic observations. Poetry, she argues, can get away with arresting readers in their tracks, asking them to admire the elegance of its constructions. In contrast, prose (narrative prose, anyway) cannot do this without sacrificing a key part of itself. Turning this distinction into a critical guideline, Le Guin reads the work of other writers accordingly. While “many people admire the elaborate and ornate prose of writers such as Nabokov,” she says she finds such language “difficult to understand because it always ceases to be admired.”
If Nabokov demands that his readers take a break, Le Guin’s review invites a similar, albeit more subtle, inspection. Here, it is the language of Nabokov which acts, the prose of Nabokov which “always stops to be admired”. Contagious, this action, the action of stopping, also causes its readers to stop, thus removing them from the story. But even when it inspires inaction, prose is active, always in motion, whether or not it is, as Le Guin says, in motion.
By theorizing a necessary link between writing and storytelling, Le Guin characterizes the best writings as living creatures with something to say about vitality. Discussing how readers should approach the book’s many writing exercises, Le Guin asks them to “make each exercise not a static scene but a narrative of an act or an action, something. event. “To illustrate this point, and all those it encompasses, Le Guin structures the 10 chapters of his book around exemplary passages, variously taken from the works of Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, etc. Above all, these extracts recall that writing is never its own end; it always exists to be read, its own actions generating others, movements leading to their conclusions.
In other words, this book offers an accessible theory of practice – a theory of movement, flow, advancement. With good reason, therefore, its chapters cover fundamentally practical subjects: “Punctuation and grammar”, “Repetition”, “Adjectives and adverbs”. Writing, Le Guin underlines in each, is a kind of work, a work which consists in letting the text do its own work, letting it breathe and grow. She emphasizes this point most clearly in her remarks on punctuation, in which she suggests that periods and semicolons, commas and their relatedness, are to a writer what tools are to a worker. “A writer who does not know [the difference between] it’s like a carpenter who doesn’t know a hammer from a screwdriver, ”she observes.
The exercises that accompany many of these lessons are just as simple and practical. Most ask readers to restrict their prose in particular ways: “Write a paragraph of a story… in sentences of seven words or less,” says one. “Write half a page to a page of story… it’s just one sentence,” ordered another. The instructions are clear, but offer only the bare minimum of information on how to complete them, often focusing much more on how to read and think about the finished products. Although her main metaphor involves sailing, she repeatedly asks her readers to swim, knowing that they will keep afloat even if they have to fidget. What cannot be taught, she suggests, simply must be done.
And yet, education still matters here, if only because it is at the heart of the story told by Le Guin. (After all, narrative prose serves storytelling first.) It has to be one of the most idiosyncratic writing textbooks ever published, the most personal, but not always the most enjoyable. Everywhere a singular voice resonates: always without sentimentality, she refuses “to speak of writing as self-expression, as therapy, or as a spiritual adventure”. Its chapters are ragged things of uneven shape. Some are brief while others are expansive, and some are gentle where others are fussy. Some contain multiple exercises or examples, while the conversational asides and short rants she calls “opinion pieces” overwhelm others. In the end, you have the impression of dealing with a very real instructor, by turns over-prepared and distracted but who is still very, very intelligent.
“History,” Le Guin says in the final chapter, “is something that moves, something that happens, something or someone that changes.” In Leading the craft, something is always moving, something is always happening, someone is always changing. Its own proof of concept is a story that succeeds despite the impossibility of its task.
Leading the trade: A 21st-Guide of the century to navigate the sea of history by Ursula K. Le Guin. Marine books.
See all parts in the Slate Book Review.
Subscribe to Slate Book Review Monthly news.