Monday, June 1, 2015

Review of The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination by Ursula Le Guin

Unlike many readers, I have come to reading science fiction and fantasy decades after devouring all kinds of mysteries,  literary fiction from many countries, Canadian literature (novels, poems, children's books, histories, political analysis and especially, short stories), and assorted other interests. Initially it was because I found so much of the so-called science fiction writing to be 2-D,  filled with metallic gadgets, stick figure archetypes and stilted dialogue,  with futuristic premises so imaginatively threadbare, so politically and psychologically juvenile that I wrote off the entire genre and moved on. I have to confess, and this may cause shrieks of dismay, that I have yet to read Tolkien and C.S. Lewis or any of the Harry Potters beyond the first one. I don't know why I haven't and I suspect it's a character flaw. I just have not gotten around to reading these Great Works but I will. Honest!

But I started by reading Ursula K. Le Guin and her wonderful EarthSea books and The Gift. Then, years later and in no particular order,  Jim Crace's The Pesthouse, Bodil Bredsdorff's The Crow-Girl, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Paulette Jiles' Lighthouse Island and many other brilliant, beautifully written books with unforgettable characters. I haven't read all of Le Guin's impressive output in several genres but it's also on my to-do list, especially after reading the essays in this collection.

They are grouped under the categories of: Personal Matters, Readings, Discussions and Opinions and On Writing. The edition I read came from the library. It is a book I must now buy because like Bredsdorff's timeless book, The Crow-Girl, I plan to read it once a year or so, just to cleanse the mind's palate and remind myself what great writing is all about. For any writer in the doldrums, proceed directly to the essay: The Question I Get Asked Most Often. To cut to the chase, and to repeat what other fine writers, like Caroline Adderson, say when asked where those story ideas come from, Le Guin writes: "Well, the secret to writing is writing. It's only a secret to people who don't want to hear it. Writing is how you be a writer."

She goes on to elaborate the ways in which imagination interacts with life experience, reincarnates the truth as art, in fact. It is simply a wonderful, illuminating, encouraging piece of writing that will elevate any writer who reads it. Clearly, Le Guin grew up with brilliant, kind, adventurous parents (the kind most writers and artists could only wish they had). This may be why she tackles Tolstoy, in another one of my favourite essays, on his famous quote, one which has undoubtedly inspired tonnes of morbidly introspective novels in which extra-Grimm realism and Ultimate Tragedy is the highest artistic achievement and Humour, Empathy, Courage and the complex and difficult achievement of Happiness are seen as highly suspect and sentimental notions. I cheered as Le Guin ripped up this heavy-handed dictum in 'All Happy Families'. As the stand-up comics like to say, with straight faces: Tragedy is easy, Comedy is hard.

So is being patient and trusting one's own material, waiting for the story-statues to emerge from the stones we all lug around as writers. I'm still pondering the title of the book, which comes from a sentence fragment in a letter Virginia Woolf wrote, describing how she just could not find the rhythm of her next book yet, that she sat "crammed with ideas, and visions and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm". It is a profoundly interesting insight and so true. I know when I've tapped into the "wave of the mind" like a surfer who leaps onto a magnificent roller that will carry her off to new acrobatic heights. I'm all-too-familiar with what it's like to be chucked off after a few false starts, and I've made many premature, undignified landings... But I'm always working while I'm waiting in the line-up for the rhythm, paying attention to the undertow of every story, and I'm always on the look-out for the really big one as I'm testing the waters, practicing, always practicing the craft. What an inspiring book!