Ursula K. Le Guin on How You Make Something Good in Creative Work
“Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!”
By Maria Popova
If you read Brain Pickings regularly, you know that there are few writers I find more invigorating — intellectually, creatively, and even spiritually, in the sense of vitalizing the human spirit and the endeavor of art — than Ursula K. Le Guin (b. October 21, 1929), who has written beautifully about being a man, where good ideas come from, the magic of real human conversation, the sacredness of public libraries, and what beauty really means.
In the summer of 2015, Le Guin launched a writing workshop of sorts on Book View Café, which she cofounded — or, rather, an online companion to her indispensable manual Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (public library), originally published in 1998 and updated in 2015.
Her insight into the writing process, always delivered with her signature blend of hard wisdom and warm wit, makes for a spectacular addition to the most abiding advice on the craft — nowhere more so in her layered answer to what is perhaps the most elemental question in creative work: How do you make something good?
Although Le Guin’s advice addresses writing in particular, it applies to just about every field of creative endeavor:
The way to make something good is to make it well.
If the ingredients are extra good (truffles, vivid prose, fascinating characters) that’s a help. But it’s what you do with them that counts. With the most ordinary ingredients (potatoes, everyday language, commonplace characters) — and care and skill in using them — you can make something extremely good.
In a sentiment of far-reaching resonance amid our culture of rampant reductionism, awash in listicles and other sexified pseudo-shortcuts, she echoes Werner Herzog’s advice to aspiring filmmakers and cautions:
Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!
Wouldn’t it be nice? But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.
With an eye to the poet Theodor Roethke’s unforgettable line — “I learn by going where I have to go,” which parallels Picasso’s “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.” — Le Guin adds:
There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.
This testing, Le Guin counsels, could benefit from feedback — but only by “readers qualified to judge.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Steinbeck’s prophetic dream about how commercialism is killing creative culture, she cautions — in a perfect LeGuinism — against listening to editors, publishers, agents, and other merchants of culture who give you rules for what will sell:
Most such rules are hogwash, and even sound ones may not apply to your story. What’s the use of a great recipe for soufflé if you’re making blintzes?
Affirming the more nuanced psychological truth behind the 10,000-hours myth of excellence and reiterating what she has previously articulated about the “secret” of great writing, Le Guin concludes:
We make something good, a blintz, a story, by having worked at blintzmaking or storywriting till we’ve learned how to do it.
With a blintz, the process is fairly routine. With stories, the process is never twice the same. Even a story written to the most prescriptive formula, like some westerns or romances, can be made poorly, or made well.
Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.
Complement Le Guin’s indispensable Steering the Craft with James Baldwin’s advice to aspiring writers, some words of wisdom from Hemingway, and the trailblazing Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner on the psychology of what makes a great story, then revisit this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ counsel on the craft.
Published March 10, 2016