Ursula Le Guin’s legacy is progress, not perfection

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

Recently I woke up to a Google alert pinging my name in connection with an article in the Washington Post about Ursula Le Guin.

My quote, pulled from an article I wrote for LitHub, was basically intended to serve in this essay as an example of the over-the-top adoration that has made Le Guin a sort of “secular saint.” 

The author of this article, B.D. McClay, goes on to unpack all the ways that Le Guin is more interesting than all that hero-worship would imply—as exemplified by the reissue of Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Writing, Science Fiction, and Fantasy.

Specifically, McClay finds interest in the way that Le Guin goes back and argues with herself over her earlier position and thoughts on, say, the use of the pronoun “he” for the androgynous denizens of Gethen, and on why there are no female wizards in Earthsea.

I read this essay with interest, but I’ll admit I found the tone—even the stance—off-putting.

Yes, Le Guin argues with herself. Yes, Le Guin changes her mind.

In The Language of the Night, Le Guin goes back and takes issue with her position on pronouns and gender in The Left Hand of Darkness

And the author did so much serious rethinking of gender in Earthsea that she wrote a whole second trilogy to address why people in this fantasy archipelago had been led to believe the lie encapsulated by the phrase “weak as women’s magic, wicked as women’s magic.”

In truth, all this “breathless” adoration Le Guin enjoys from rubes like me and…Ken Liu? It’s not because we think Le Guin was infallible.

We love her because she took big risks and didn’t always land them.

We love her because she tried to create work that was true to her ideals, like so many of us—but unlike most of us, she had the temerity to own those mistakes publicly, and then do her best to address them. 

That’s why Le Guin is a secular saint.

Not because she was perfect, but because she evolved. (Which is in fact addressed by the rest of that essay I wrote for LitHub—but perhaps that part didn’t help this particular author set up their argument in the desired fashion?)

A perfect agreement between our ideals and our creative work strikes me along the lines of world peace, in terms of a goal, as per an anecdote one of my clients, Scott Snibbe, shared in his recently published book How to Train a Happy Mind: A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

Scott notes that someone once asked the Dalai Lama, “Is world peace actually possible?” And the Dalai Lama basically said, practically speaking, no—there will always be some kind of conflict somewhere. 

But is working toward the goal of world peace important? Yes, because doing so will improve the quality of life on earth for the vast majority of people. 

Doing so will change the world.

Le Guin was all for world changing, but she didn’t write utopias, because she understood the idea of perfection—the idea of a perfect world–was a lie. And a dangerous one at that.

But progress? She believed in that—and most importantly, she modeled for us what that looks like, as people, thinkers, and artists.

That’s why she remains one of the guiding lights of my work. The anthology I edited, Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, is full of fabulous SFF and literary writers paying tribute to Le Guin’s legacy in their own creative work. You can check it out here.

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Two critical questions for any novel

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

It wasn’t so long ago I confessed to you I’d never actually written a first draft of a novel based on an outline, but that’s not entirely true.

The novel I’m writing now started off as a short story—so my first draft wasn’t much of a draft at all. 

And now that I’m actually writing this novel? Man, I am SO glad I took the time earlier this year to work out the fine details. 

Meaning, I’m glad I took the time to develop a sturdy structure for the novel. To figure out what the characters were hiding and why. To fine-tune my two protagonists’ character arcs, and to flesh out the backstory on my world and its characters.

Because now that I have, I can really stretch my creative muscles, live in the world of the story, and enjoy the sense of a real story unfolding beneath my fingertips each day.

In the creative writing world, much is made of simply applying “butt to chair.” But just forging ahead with a novel you haven’t done this kind of work on is a recipe for wasting years of your life. 

I know: I’ve done it myself, and I’ve helped more clients than I can count untangle the convoluted results of this approach.

In my course on big-picture structure, Anatomy of the Novel, I guide students through the sort of big-picture work I consider critical to avoiding years of rewrites—the exact work I did this spring, in developing the outline for this novel.

Here are two questions you’ll find explored there, and why answering them BEFORE you apply “butt to seat” will save you a whole lot of time and frustration in revision. 

  1. What is hidden from the reader’s view?

Many stories contain a series of developments or reveals, and/or one big revelation at the end. And while it might be fun as you’re writing to hint at big things you haven’t actually worked out, your story will fall flat if it doesn’t ultimately all fit together at the end.

In order to work that out, you have to figure out for yourself what is hidden from the reader’s view—which often means working out the story from the antagonist’s point of view, starting at whatever point in the past the story really began and working through to the point where all is revealed.

Once you’re clear on that, you can not only build your trail of breadcrumbs more effectively, you can make sure that they actually lead somewhere that feels revelatory…rather than somewhere that feels like a letdown.

  1. What is the essential backstory?

There are times when you may have a sort of vague or amorphous understanding of what happened in the world of your story before that story started. And that can be fine if you’re just writing a discovery draft.

But once you know where your story is going, you’ll realize that what happens in the present timeline actually started in the past—and that some parts of what happened in the past are essential for your reader to know.

If you don’t find a way to include that essential backstory in your novel, you’ll wind up with one of the most common situations writers face: a story that makes sense in YOUR head but not in your reader’s.

And if the backstory you have included doesn’t clearly set up what happens, you’ll find yourself in another: a story where the reader expects things to happen, based on that backstory, that never do.

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Just one reader (the right one)

Susan DeFCreative Writing, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

When many of us start out as writers, our goal with publishing is to have our work read (and loved) by lots of people—the more the better.

And certainly, that’s the dream. But lately, I’ve been struck by the power of having your work read and appreciated by just one person—the right one.

I’m sending this your way as I’m celebrating another short story acceptance, this one from Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, one of my favorite publications.

Lady Churchill’s isn’t necessarily one of the big markets for speculative fiction (like, say, Uncanny, or Asimov’s). But it publishes exactly the sort of thing I like best: stories that riff on speculative themes in surprising ways, often with strong literary sensibilities and/or sense of place.

Also: The editors of Lady Churchill’s are Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, the folks behind Small Beer Press, which has published so many of my favorite speculative novels, which share those sensibilities. 

And of course there’s the fact that Kelly Link’s work is a chief inspiration for the collection this short story is a part of.

Sure, it would be a thrill to have tons of people read this story, the way maybe they would if it were being published in one of those bigger publications.

But to me, it’s a bigger deal that these particular people—the editors of this particular publication—read and loved it. 

Really, what I’m coming to understand is that literature is a conversation, and conversation is a two-way street. Book reviews and star ratings are one way that readers “talk back,” but the deeper level of dialogue tends to occur between authors and editors. 

Working with one of my heroes on this collection, Lidia Yuknavitch, is a good example of this. I hired her to evaluate of the manuscript ostensibly to prepare it for publication, and her feedback was definitely helpful in that regard.

But really, just the sense that this one person, whose work had made me feel so seen and understood, had see and understand my work…really, it felt like the whole thing.

Meaning, it felt like I’d already succeeded, even without having actually published the thing.

It brings me back to the mystery at the heart of our work, which I think Lidia put as clearly as anyone has. “People think I’m weird when I say this,” she told me, the last time we talked, “but when I’m deep in a work of art, that’s as close as I ever get with anyone.”

And when the feeling is mutual? It’s powerful. In a way that I think can actually change your life.

I share all this because so many writers seem to feel that if their work doesn’t reach a wide audience, they will have failed—that all of their hard work will have been for nothing. 

But really, it might take just one person to make you feel like you’ve succeeded, and that all your time and effort with your story has been worthwhile. Simply because it has allowed you to connect with someone, at one of the deepest levels we can in this life.

Here’s to better stories for a better world.


Your Identity as a Writer

Susan DeFCreative Writing, fiction, Publications, Reflections, StoryQuarterlyLeave a Comment

This week I’m celebrating one of those little wins in the writing life: An acceptance from StoryQuarterly.

This is for a story from my collection, Dream Studies, which is currently out on submission—and while other stories in the collection have been published in some lovely places, this acceptance marks the largest and most established market I’ve cracked thus far with fiction. (StoryQuarterly is run by the MFA program at Rutgers, and it’s been publishing continuously longer than I’ve been alive.)

Recently, I’ve had family in town, and when I shared this little win with them one night over dinner, there were toasts all around (though I’m sure none of these folks have ever even heard of this journal).

I told my family members something I hadn’t even quite realized myself until then: that I’d been waiting for an acceptance like this since I was eighteen years old.

That was the year I attended the Interlochen Arts Academy. The year I had my mind blown by writers like Stuart Dybek, Jamaica Kincaid, Mary Oliver, and Theodore Roethke.

Laughing, I told my fam, “That was the year I decided I wanted to be great.”

My auntie just grinned and said, “Kid, you’ve always been great.”

Which brought home to me…well, so many things.

When you’re ambitious with your art, it’s easy to let your identity as a writer become your identity, period.

Which is an excellent recipe for feeling like a steaming pile of disappointment to yourself, sooner or later.

Because art is long and life is short, and publishing is a tough industry—one in which the winds are always shifting. (I think many of the novels we loved when we were younger would probably struggle to find a publisher these days.)

The truth is, most of us just have to write what it is we’re called to write, and we don’t have much control over how our literary efforts will be received, despite all best efforts.

I’m sending you this email at a time of tumult and transformation in my life. A time of introspection, reevaluation, and rapid personal growth (never a tidy process).

And a big part of what I’ve been working toward in this time is uncoupling my sense of identity as a person from my identity as a writer—particularly my self-perceived level of success as a writer.

That night, my aunt reminded me that there are people who think I’m amazing just for being who I am.

And it occurred to me that being a writer may in fact just be a symptom of an overall condition I have, and which I think you may have as well—a condition that might be characterized as being perceptive, sensitive, smart, tuned in to the world around you and the people around you.

Which really is something special all by itself.

The irony isn’t lost on me, that just as I’m starting to finally to get some traction with the sorts of markets I’ve been chasing since I was a kid I’m also coming to understand that these sorts of acceptances really aren’t all that important.

What’s important are the people who love you for being who you are.

What’s important is discovering what it is about you that is in fact MOST YOU—and finding a way to express more of that in your day to day life.

So often, when we’re seeking acceptance from others what we really seeking is self-acceptance.

So often, when we’re seeking the thrill of sharing our work with others, the deeper joy lies in the cultivation of what makes our work most unique.

If I have a wish for you today, it would be for your writing to take you deeper into who you really are, regardless of external outcomes.

Increasingly, I’ve come to see that’s where we draw the power necessary to make great art.

Here’s to your stories.

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