Ursula's Tools

This week's book was Ursula K. Le Guin's instructional book for writers, Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998). 

Things this book made me write in my journal: 

1. I do not know the craft like I should. 

2. I must keep a dictionary on my desk, not on the bookshelf. (Dictionary.com won't cut it: as soon as I look at my phone, my focus will be gone). 

3. Libraries are indispensable and copy machines exist for a reason: I don't have to scribble in the margins, I can copy fifteen excerpts for a dollar-fifty, and I'll have saved the four bucks from buying it off Amazon. 


Now. In regards to the book's content. Steering the Craft covers these elements of writing craft: 1) the sound of your writing, 2) punctuation and grammar, 3) sentence length and complete syntax, 4) repetition, 5) adjectives and adverbs, 6) verbs: person and tense, 7) point of view and voice, 8) changing point of view, 9) indirect narration, or what tells, 10) crowding and leaping. There is also an appendix at the back which discusses peer revision groups. A glossary of terms follows the appendix. 

Early on in my reading, a thought struck me: I often finish a book and walk away from it remembering just one image, scene or moment. Why is this? 

Have you thought about this? Humor me: think back on your books, your favorites and ones you think fondly of; try and recall three scenes from each book. Can you do it? Maybe you can--all the better for you. Speaking for myself, I have a niggling feeling that I'll put this book down on Monday (or next Wednesday, after I've worked through all the very helpful exercises Le Guin includes), and I'll still come away with a single muse; I'll be stuck on just one craft element. Rhythm, for instance. I will look at my writing and focus mostly on its rhythm. 

I wonder if taking just one thing away from every book we read is not, well, a bad thing. If I come away from Steering the Craft and I'm obsessive about making my writing sound better, making it flow and have cadence and slow, quicken, and slow again, with a heartbeat akin to the movements of a cutter sliding through and slicing into long, gulping billows. . . 

Perhaps that is not a bad thing. I can loan this book from the library again next year (or buy it off Amazon when I get a job offer, in June--yes, it will happen! It must!). Yes, I can focus on a different element next month or next year. By the time I'm fifty, I should then be a master. Fifty is still a young age. I nod my head to Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Pollan, Claire Keegan, and all the other wise writers I can think of, and I say, "Thank you for working at your craft. Thank you for your example of diligence." Personally, I still have a long way to go. 

In conclusion today, I'll admit that Steering the Craft does not fit into my list of "most memorable books," but its purpose is not to uplift or inform, but to instruct and guide. My final 18 couldn't-live-without books will, I hope, be narratives and not HOW-TOs. So, I suggest that readers who have no aspirations to write should not read this book, unless they are terribly inquisitive people who want to read excerpts from classics--like Huckleberry Finn, Mansfield Park, or Uncle Tom's Cabin--which are all included in the book. (Le Guin noted the difficulty of quoting modern literature within modern literature: it's expensive. We've got quite enough dead authors who were brilliant enough at their craft, and we are just as well off studying them!) The benefit of reading this book, if you are not a writing reader, is just this: you will become a smarter reader. You will understand a little better how writers think about words, and know how terribly hard it is to be good at writing. Hence: this book will boost your self-esteem. Authors are not better people than you. (They're probably just better at faking self-confidence). 

I salute you, writers, and I applaud you, readers: we are all battling our own demons, they just each look a little bit different. For fellow writers, I highly recommend this book. It will help you slay demons (the ones that look like semicolons and commas).  



Next week's book: Out Stealing Horses: A Novel, by Per Petterson. I must mention my friends Kevin Monahan and Melanie Viets on this one. It was Kevin who said, "you should have read this book yesterday," and Melanie who said, (and this is enough), "I am in love with it."