The Making of a Soul | Words of Wednesday

We’re social animals, but we crave solitude to make our souls. —Ursula K. Le Guin, Words Are My Matter


From Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Very Good American Novel: H. L. Davis’s Honey in the Horn” in Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books 2000-2016 (a collection of essays, book reviews, author notes, and introductions). 

Advertisements

A Conscious Act | Words of Wednesday

For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena


Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. An award-winning fantasy and science fiction writer, whose published work spans more than five decades, Le Guin was (among other things) a woman in a male-dominated field (specifically, the science fiction genre), a life-long student of Taoism, an astute observer of human nature, and an unparalleled tale-weaver, word-smith, and world-builder.

Le Guin sold her first novel at the age of thirty-seven (a fact that, at thirty-one, gives me great hope), and the years she’d already spent as a scholar (as an undergraduate at Radcliffe, as a graduate student at Columbia, and as a Fulbright recipient in France) — not to mention as a mother, wife, and generally thoughtful, engaged human being — lent her books a care and depth that is unquestionably literary (despite their broad public appeal).

I’ve long been a fan — a lover — of Le Guin’s work (especially her Earthsea cycle, which, in contrast to so much contemporary fantasy, manages to create worlds of depth and originality with an economy of pages and words), but it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize the true breadth of her genius. There is a particular kind of joy in discovering that a favorite author is not only brilliant, but prolific — and prolific across genres. I’ve read fifteen of her books to date, and numerous short stories, ranging from fantasy, science fiction, and retold myth to young adult novels and historical fiction, yet there remain a veritable feast of books, essays, and short stories to discover. 

This quote comes from my most recent Le Guin read (which also happens to be the first book I finished in 2019). Set in the early 1800s, in an imaginary central European country, Malafrena was utterly refreshing and unexpected. Published in 1979, it was written (at least in draft form) over twenty-five years earlier, and thus represents the oldest of Le Guin’s published work. It reads . . . well . . . like a text written in central Europe in the early 1800s.

Despite my love and appreciation of Le Guin, her ability to write so far outside her expected canon still took me by surprise. The prose, characterization, and narrative are each rich, complex, nuanced, contradictory, and, ultimately, alien. Not familiar as even her most far-flung worlds are familiar, rooted as they are in a contemporary genre whose questions, contours, and tropes are our own. In contrast, the world of Malafrena is remarkably other: these are not our people (not contemporary minds and hearts, playing dress-up in historic clothes); this is not our time.

Yet the very strangeness echoes like a memory, reminding us of something important we’ve forgotten. As with Chesterton’s “moor eeffoc” (“coffee room” encountered backwards), we are startled awake — and the world is strange and wonderful and new once more.1 

It is a book, ultimately, about the nature of freedom, intentionality, necessity, and all the paradoxes and perils of our entangled, tragic, beautiful, brief, and confounding existence. What a perilous thing is choice; what a marvel to be human and alive.

If this was her world, she was strong enough to live in it. She was a woman, not trained for any public act, not trained to defiance, brought up to the woman’s part: waiting. So she would wait. For any act done consciously may be defiant, may be independent, may change life utterly. –Ursula K. Le Guin, Malafrena

Footnotes:

1. This is an effect I’m more used to attributing to fantasy, than realism (and thus the shock is somehow greater and stranger encountered in a historical novel like Malafrena, hiding as it is in plain sight), but Chesterton himself declared it “the motto of all effective realism.” So who am I to argue? 

Introducing Words of Wednesday

To be a writer, you must be a reader. This is a truth every writer knows. But it’s not just because we learn something of form and the rhythms and music of language from studying the masters. It’s because, as writers, words are our medium. What fill our souls, activate our minds, and grant us something to ponder.

Without the words of others — the works that move me and call me to life — I really would have nothing to say. Writing may be a journey into wakefulness, but I am taught to walk that path by those who came before me — those who startle me from complacency and inspire me into recognition. Those who reflect life, and truth, back to me in a form that I can process, grasp — be grasped by.

In honor of those voices that are feeding me on a daily basis, I’ve decided to start something new. An experiment, if you will. Every Wednesday, I would like to highlight some of the words that have spoken to me that week — some of the words that have called / are calling me into wakefulness. Fragment, paragraph, or poem, I’ll tell you where I found it (so you can retrace my steps if you’d like) and I might, or might not, explain something of the whys and wherefores of my choice — what power, relevance, or meaning it currently holds in my life.

The purpose of this is two-fold: 1. The pure joy of celebrating, and sharing, beautiful words. 2. To act as a sort of monument or artifact — a place to collect, and pay tribute to, some of the beauty I’m finding along the way.

That, after all, is what this blog — In Search of Waking was always meant to be about. An invitation to mindfulness. A reminder to pay attention. To wake up to the details — to the gift — of one’s life. My life. Writing, for me, has become, more and more, about a practice of gratitude. A way to cherish wonder. Nurture awe.1

I want to be alive and awake to the mystery, the miracle, that is my life. This life. The only one I get.

And part of that miracle — that gift — is ink on the page. The power of other writers’ words to call me back to myself and wake me up, remind me what I had forgotten or teach me what I never knew.

Since no one says what I’m trying to express more exquisitely than Annie Dillard (I almost wrote “more clearly,” but my high school students would have passionately disagreed), here is one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life to get us started:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so that we may feel again their majesty and power? What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered? Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love? We still and always want waking.

Footnotes

1. As Anne Lamott alludes — both in her writing book, Bird by Bird, and in her audio-lecture, “Word by Word (which I recently re-listened to) — being a writer is about slowing down, becoming conscious, and asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be? Every writer I’ve ever loved has said the same thing in their own way.