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The Writing Life – Steering the writer

By Staff | Dec 6, 2013

This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. The Eighth Mountain Press. 1998. ISBN 0-933377-46-0.

Every once in a while, a “how-to” book on writing comes along that actually makes sense.

A good example would be Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft.

Le Guin uses sailing metaphors consistently throughout this book that’s appropriate for writers of any level – from novice to professional. While the novice may find some of this new information, the seasoned writer will be able to take what he or she has learned and apply it in a meaningful way.

“Play with the rhythms and sounds of the sentences you write,” says Le Guin. That’s good advice, giving us the freedom to break the constraints of meaning and objectivity to explore the varied nuances of our writing.

A couple of the exercises Le Guin suggests include writing a narrative of 100-150 words with sentences of seven or fewer words while another challenges the writer to write a narrative of 350 words – all in one sentence. Accomplished aficionados of Proust’s In Search or Lost Time or Faulkner’s A Fable should not find this difficult at all. In a recent piece that I did, I found the second exercise particularly helpful – it lent itself to a lot of poetic metaphor.

Le Guin also offers an exercise in which the writer is challenged to use a dialect or colloquial voice to contrast with the voice of another character. This is excellent advice, and a good way to make the dialogue of each speaker unique. Ideally, dialogue should be so unique from speaker to speaker that attribution is almost unnecessary.

Le Guin also asks us to explore verbal, syntactic and structural repetition in which we repeat words, phrases or passages to create a narrative or story echo. And it works.

And here’s a challenging one: Write a paragraph to a page of descriptive narrative prose without adjectives or adverbs. This exercise forces us to use strong, action-packed verbs and specific nouns which together create vivid language.

At a time in which even full-length novels such as Fifty Shades of Gray are written in present tense, Le Guin offers advice that is reassuring to the novice and reaffirming to more traditional writers when she says of the present tense, “But its supposed immediacy, its “presentness,” is as fictive as the pastness of fiction written in the past tense, and far more artificial.”

Le Guin also challenges us to write the same scene from the point of view of various characters and from the first-person, limited third-person and omniscient points of view – all good exercises for the writer – again whether the novice learning how to write or the seasoned author looking for a way out of narrative quicksand.

I must confess that Le Guin’s book gave me an even greater appreciation for the intricate technique of one of my favorite writers, John Steinbeck, who on the surface seems almost simplistic, but who actually blends an involved author with a limited third-person point of view – and quite masterfully.

And, just like actors such as Robert De Niro are the apotheosis of method acting, Le Guin shows us that the same technique can be used in writing:

“It might seem that the writer needs a gift of mimicry, like an impersonator, to achieve this variety of voices. But it isn’t that. It’s more like what a serious actor does, sinking self in character-self. It’s a willingness to be the characters, letting what they think and say rise from inside them. It’s a willingness to share control with one’s creation.”

Here’s another great exercise:

“Character by indirection – Describe a character by describing any place inhabited or frequented by that character – a room, house, garden, office, studio, bed, whatever. (The character isn’t present at the time.)”

Whether you’re just thinking of starting to write fiction, memoir or another genre, or if you’ve been writing for quite some time and are looking for a way out of writer’s block or needing inspiration, this is a great book.

No serious writer should be without it.

Doris Lessing

The literary world lost one of its treasures with the passing of Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, author of The Golden Notebook, The Grass is Singing and other great works on Nov. 17.

Look for a tribute to Lessing in a later column.

Michael Tidemann’s author page is at: amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann