Ursula K. Le Guin on Redeeming the Imagination from the Commodification of Creativity and How Storytelling Teaches Us to Assemble Ourselves
“Literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.”
By Maria Popova
“The imagination,” wrote the trailblazing philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft in a 1794 letter, “is the true fire, stolen from heaven, to animate this cold creature of clay, producing all those fine sympathies that lead to rapture, rendering men social by expanding their hearts, instead of leaving them leisure to calculate how many comforts society affords.” And yet somehow, in the centuries since, we have increasingly lost sight of the imagination’s rapturous rewards and come to see it as a commodity of what we now call “the creative industry” — something calculable and efficient, useful in maximizing society’s comforts and business’s profits. Much as today’s archetypal Silicon Valley characters are pragmatizing Eastern philosophy and ancient meditation practices as tools for “optimizing” their “performance,” the imagination — that pinnacle of our cognitive evolution and seedbed of our core humanity — is being co-opted for purposes that have little to do with animating our sympathies and expanding our hearts.
More than two centuries after Wollstonecraft, Ursula K. Le Guin, another woman of extraordinary intellect and imaginative prowess, sets out to redeem the imagination from the grip of consumerist commodification in a magnificent 2002 lecture titled “Operating Instructions,” later included in Le Guin’s altogether fantastic nonfiction collection Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016, with a Journal of a Writers Week (public library).
Le Guin writes:
In America the imagination is generally looked on as something that might be useful when the TV is out of order. Poetry and plays have no relation to practical politics. Novels are for students, housewives, and other people who don’t work. Fantasy is for children and primitive peoples. Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions. I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination.
I hear voices agreeing with me. “Yes, yes!” they cry. “The creative imagination is a tremendous plus in business! We value creativity, we reward it!” In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. This reduction has gone on so long that the word creative can hardly be degraded further. I don’t use it any more, yielding it to capitalists and academics to abuse as they like. But they can’t have imagination.
Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit-making. It is not a weapon, though all weapons originate from it, and their use, or non-use, depends on it, as with all tools and their uses. The imagination is an essential tool of the mind, a fundamental way of thinking, an indispensable means of becoming and remaining human.
Le Guin observes that like any tool, the imagination requires that we first learn how to use it — or, rather, that we unlearn how to squander it. Storytelling, she argues, is the sandbox in which we learn to use the imagination:
Children have imagination to start with, as they have body, intellect, the capacity for language: things essential to their humanity, things they need to learn how to use, how to use well. Such teaching, training, and practice should begin in infancy and go on throughout life. Young human beings need exercises in imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive.
When children are taught to hear and learn the central literature of their people, or, in literate cultures, to read and understand it, their imagination is getting a very large part of the exercise it needs.
Nothing else does quite as much for most people, not even the other arts. We are a wordy species. Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. Music, dance, visual arts, crafts of all kinds, all are central to human development and well-being, and no art or skill is ever useless learning; but to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, nothing quite equals poem and story.
Virginia Woolf considered memory the seamstress that threads our lives together, but it is story — our inner storytelling — that orders memory into a coherent thread; it is story that, as Susan Sontag memorably observed, can “reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.” Our life-paths are paved with story — stretching back, the stories we tell ourselves about what happened to us, why it did, and how it made us who we are; stretching forward, the stories we tell ourselves about what is possible, what we want to achieve, and who we want to become.
In consonance with Rebecca West’s assertion that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity… a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted,” Le Guin considers this essential function of story in sculpting our ability to be at home in the world and its formative role in our becoming:
Through story, every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.
A child who doesn’t know where the center is — where home is, what home is — that child is in a very bad way.
Home isn’t Mom and Dad and Sis and Bud. Home isn’t where they have to let you in. It’s not a place at all. Home is imaginary.
Home, imagined, comes to be. It is real, realer than any other place, but you can’t get to it unless your people show you how to imagine it—whoever your people are. They may not be your relatives. They may never have spoken your language. They may have been dead for a thousand years. They may be nothing but words printed on paper, ghosts of voices, shadows of minds. But they can guide you home. They are your human community.
All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.
But that self-invention, Le Guin cautions, is not a solitary act — it takes place at the communal campfire where our essential stories of being are co-created and told. Building on the ideas in her exquisite earlier meditation on telling and listening, she writes:
Human beings have always joined in groups to imagine how best to live and help one another carry out the plan. The essential function of human community is to arrive at some agreement on what we need, what life ought to be, what we want our children to learn, and then to collaborate in learning and teaching so that we and they can go on the way we think is the right way.
Nobody can do anything very much, really, alone.
What a child needs, what we all need, is to find some other people who have imagined life along lines that make sense to us and allow some freedom, and listen to them. Not hear passively, but listen.
Listening is an act of community, which takes space, time, and silence.
Reading is a means of listening.
Seven decades after Hermann Hesse made his beautiful case for why we read and always will, however technology may evolve, Le Guin adds:
The technology is not what matters. Words are what matter. The sharing of words. The activation of imagination through the reading of words.
The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we’re visiting, life.
Words Are My Matter is a tremendous read in its totality, exploring questions of art, storytelling, gender, freedom, dignity, and what happens when we go to sleep. Complement this particular portion with William Blake’s searing defense of the imagination and Ada Lovelace on its two core faculties, then revisit Le Guin on being a “man,” the sacredness of public libraries, imaginative storytelling as a force of freedom, what beauty really means, where good ideas come from, and writing as falling in love.