WIR #39: Steering the Craft

Steering the CraftLe Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Oregon: The Eighth Mountain Press. Copyright © 1998, by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Ursula K. Le Guin's web site:
http://www.ursulakleguin.com/


The full title of this book, which I've owned now for a few years, is Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. A mouthful, to be sure, but it is not without well-thought-out meaning. If you are a writer sans a writing group, then you are a 'lone navigator.' If you're part of a writing group, then you are one of a 'mutinous crew.' Thus, no matter whether yours is a row boat piloted by one or a ship manned with a full crew, this book is intended to meet your writing needs.

I spent days and days and days anguishing over what I would choose to read upon finishing Holly Lisle's trilogy, and then I flogged myself with a cat-o'-nine-tails. This book had been sitting on my desk for all those days, and many more besides, patiently waiting for me to pick it up. I first started reading Steering the Craft years ago, after it had been given to me as a gift, even taking pains to go through Le Guin's exercises, but I'd never finished it. This time I shall.

Le Guin is easily, very easily, one of my favourite writers. Her reputation and the awards she has won far outshines those whose prolificacy makes her look irredeemably blocked. The fact remains, however, that there is not much that can compare with her Earthsea novels, her Hainish Cycle novels, or her far more famous and award-winning The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness. Her awards speak as loudly as her novels, as she has won a National Book Award, five Hugo and five Nebula Awards, the Kafka Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Howard Vursell Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the PEN/Malamud Award.

(As a Note: Although I'm numbering this as 'What I'm Reading #39,' should I still be reading it come the New Year, I shall renumber it as 'What I'm Reading #1' for 2010. I've not done this before. I've usually numbered books according to the year in which they were started and not the year in which they were finished, but ultimately it doesn't matter.)

I love the blurb for this book:

With her sharp mind and wit and a delightful sense of playfulness, Le Guin has turned a successful workshop into a self-guided voyage of discovery for a writer working alone, a writing group, or a class. Steering the Craft is concerned with the basic elements of narrative: how a story is told, what moves it and what clogs it. This book does not plod through plot, character, beginning-middle-and-end. Nor does it discuss writing as self-expression, as therapy, or as spiritual adventure.

Writing can be all these things; but first of all — and in the end, too — it is an art, a craft, a making. To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It's worth it."

Each topic includes examples that clarify and exercises that intensify awareness of the techniques of storytelling:

  • the sound of language
  • the narrative sentence and paragraph
  • rhythm and repetition
  • adjectives and adverbs
  • tense and person of the verb
  • voice and point of view
  • implicit narration
  • crowding, leaping, focus, and control
Once we're keenly and clearly aware of these elements of our craft, we can use and practice them until — the point of all practice — we don't have to think about them consciously at all, because they have become skills.

A skill is something you know how to do.

Skill in writing frees you to write what you want to write. It may also show you what you want to write. Craft enables art.

There's luck in art. There's the gift. You can't earn that. You can't deserve it. But you can learn skill, you can earn it. You can learn to deserve your gift."

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