The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write (Tin House) is an essential anthology of speeches made by leading writers at Oregon’s Literary Arts Foundation, which is celebrating thirty years strong in 2014. It’s a pleasure to read writers like Chimamanda Adiche, Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, and Jeanette Winsterson on how and why we write and the mystery of the muse and inspiration.
It’s full of quotes that you’ll just want to put over your desk, like this quip from Ursula K. Le Guin: “That “anxiety of influence” stuff is just testosterone talking.” Le Guin’s full piece, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” is a marvelous meditation on inspiration and how to write and how current ideas and problems get mediated through techniques used in fantasy and genre. Read an excerpt from Le Guin’s piece below; The World Split Open is now available in stores and online.
From “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” by Ursula K. Le Guin:
A novel seldom comes from just one stimulus or “idea” but a whole clumping and concatenation of ideas and images, visions and mental perceptions, all slowly drawing in around some center that is usually obscure to me until long after the book’s done and I finally say, “Oh, that’s what that book’s about.”
To me, two things are essential during this drawing together, the clumping process: before I know much of anything about the story I have to see the place, the landscape, and I have to know the principal people. By name. And it has to be the right name. If it’s the wrong name, the character won’t come to me. I won’t know who the person is. The character won’t talk, won’t do anything. Please don’t ask me how I arrive at the name and how I know it’s the right name; I have no idea. When I hear it, I know it. And I know who the character is, and where. And then the story can begin.
Here is an example. My book The Telling started this way: I learned that Taoist religion, an ancient popular religion of vast complexity and a major element of Chinese culture, had been suppressed, wiped out, by Mao Tse-tung. Taoism as a practice now exists chiefly in Taiwan, possibly underground on the mainland, possibly not. In one generation, one psychopathic tyrant destroyed a tradition two thousand years old. In one lifetime. My lifetime.
And I knew nothing about it. The enormity of the event, and the enormity of my ignorance, left me stunned. I had to think about it. Since the way I think is fiction, eventually I had to write a story about it. But how could I write a novel about China? My poverty of experience would be fatal. A novel set on an imagined world, then, about the extinction of a religion as a deliberate political act in counterpoint to the suppression of political freedom by a theocracy? All right, there’s my theme, my idea if you will.
I’m impatient to get started, impassioned by the theme. So I look for the people who will tell me the story, the people who are going to live this story. And I find this uppity kid, this smart girl who goes from Earth to that world. I don’t remember what her original name was; she had five different names. I started the book five times, and it got nowhere. I had to stop.
I had to sit, patiently, and say nothing, at the same time every day, while the fox looked at me out of the corner of its eye and slowly let me get a little bit closer. And finally the woman whose story it was spoke to me. “I’m Sutty,” she said. “Follow me.” So I followed her; and she led me up into the high mountains; she gave me the book.
I had a good idea; but I did not have a story. The story had to make itself, find its center, find its voice — Sutty’s voice. Then, because I was waiting for it, it could give itself to me. Or put it this way: I had a lot of stuff in my head, but I couldn’t pull it together, I couldn’t dance that dance because I hadn’t waited to catch the beat. I didn’t have the rhythm.
Earlier, I used a sentence from a letter from Virginia Woolf to her friend Vita Sackville-West. Sackville-West had been pontificating about finding the right word, Flaubert’s mot juste, and agonizing very Frenchly about style; and Woolf wrote back, very Englishly:
As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it: But no doubt I shall think differently next year.
Woolf wrote that seventy-five years ago; if she did think differently next year, she didn’t tell anybody. She says it lightly, but she means it: this is very profound. I have not found anything more profound, or more useful, about the source of story — where the ideas come from.
Beneath memory and experience, beneath imagination and invention — beneath words, as she says — there are rhythms to which memory and imagination and words all move. The writer’s job is to go down deep enough to begin to feel that rhythm, find it, move to it, be moved by it, and let it move memory and imagination to find words.
She’s full of ideas but she can’t dislodge them, she says, because she can’t find their rhythm — can’t find the beat that will unlock them, set them moving forward into a story, get them telling themselves. A “wave in the mind,” she calls it; and says that a sight or an emotion may create it, like a stone dropped into still water, and the circles go out from the center in silence, in perfect rhythm, and the mind follows those circles outward and outward till they turn to words.
But her image is greater: her wave is a sea wave, traveling smooth and silent a thousand miles across the ocean till it strikes the shore and crashes, breaks, and flies up in a foam of words. But the wave, the rhythmic impulse, is before words and “has nothing to do with words.” So the writer’s job is to recognize the wave, the silent swell way out at sea, way out in the ocean of the mind, and follow it to shore, where it can turn or be turned into words, unload its story, throw out its imagery, pour out its secrets. And ebb back into the ocean of story.
What is it that prevents the ideas and visions from finding their necessary underlying rhythm, why couldn’t Woolf “dislodge” them that morning? It could be a thousand things, distractions, worries; but very often I think what keeps a writer from finding the words is that she grasps at them too soon, hurries, grabs. She doesn’t wait for the wave to come in and break. She wants to write because she’s a writer; she wants to say this, and tell people that, and show people something else — things she knows, her ideas, her opinions, her beliefs, important things — but she doesn’t wait for the wave to come and carry her beyond all the ideas and opinions, to where you cannot use the wrong word. None of us is Virginia Woolf, but I hope every writer has had at least a moment when they rode the wave, and all the words were right.
Prose and poetry — all art, music, dance — rise from and move with the profound rhythms of our body, our being, and the body and being of the world. Physicists read the universe as a great range of vibrations, of rhythms. Art follows and expresses those rhythms. Once we get the beat, the right beat, our ideas and our words dance to it — the round dance that everybody can join. And then I am thou, and the barriers are down. For a while.
Copyright 2000 Ursula K. Le Guin. Used with her permission.