TIP: If you want to see Ursula K Le Guin in her hometown of Portland, Oregon at the iconic Powell’s Bookstore, then maybe you better get there early. Like two hours early. Three if you want to grab a copy of the recent edition of her book Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story.
By the time I arrived forty-five minutes early, the Pearl Room was packed, and copies of her book were gone like Amy Dunne. The seats were all taken as was any respectable square foot of standing space. I scouted out a spot at an end-cap. I was crowded in by people arriving after me, and the crowd was spreading further behind me. I had to peak over someone’s shoulder to get a view of the podium, which was blocked by a pillar.
But did I let that stop me from hearing Le Guin speak? Hell no!
Here is what she had to say about the reprint of her book.
When Le Guin goes to Powell’s and peruses the writing books, she sees three things:
1.) Books that tell ambitious writers how they can make money
2.) Writing as self-discovery and spiritual practice and therapy
3.) Books that encourage the beginner and tend to be full of rules.
Le Guin’s book doesn’t go to any of these places. In this book she doesn’t talk about rules. She believes that every story should make their own rules and obey them.
Instead, she said, she writes about the craft, which she believes is important for writing. Her book is about craftsmanship, about honing your skills the same way a dedicated carpenter cuts wood or a graphic designer creates skilled work. In her new book, she says she’s talking to people who are already motivated and who have a craving to work more on their craft. She also talked about writing in a man’s world, technology, and reading voraciously as a kid.
Here is a smattering of advice from Le Guin based on audience questions. (SPOILER ALERT: A lot of her advice was “I don’t have any!” and then she would throw us something Yoda-like, you know, wise and to the point).
On writing endings: First she said she didn’t have any advice, and then she said have an idea of what you’re doing before you do it.
On world-building: You have to be immersed in the world to write about it. You have to go there. To draw the reader into the world, it has to be real to you.
On balancing a good story and writing for the social good: Write a good story. If you write a good story, then it will be a social good.
To a question I couldn’t hear from the back of the room: LeGuin said she loves writing and loves doing the work. It’s what she always wanted to do.
On distractions: Le Guin never had that problem. She told the young woman asking the question, if she didn’t want to write, then don’t write and go do something else. Do it for the love of it, because it’s a calling you would do above anything else.
On the course of self-publishing: “Boy, I wish I knew! Then I would tell Bezos.”
Whether or not you enjoy Le Guin’s work, she is a damn good writer, because for her it’s all about the craft. She does it purely for the love of the work and because there’s nothing else she would rather be doing. I had a lot of “Amen, sister!” and “Fuck yeah” moments as I heard her talk about the craft. Her message is clear and true: Do the craft. Love the craft. Immerse yourself in the craft.
And it was pretty good advice for the question I asked her at the end of the talk: “You talk a lot about writing in a man’s world. A lot has changed, but it still feels that way sometimes. Any advice for young women who are writing?”
I kind of faltered towards the end of the question, because she was squinting at me, and she took a while to answer before she said, “Don’t let the old guys scare you. They’re kind of on the way out.”