One of the books on my fake "Master's Degree" list is Steering the Craft by Ursula K Le Guin. I loved this book, every chapter, though it took me nearly a year to go through all of the chapters and assignments. I consider Ursula K Le Guin to be a master of the craft, and although this book addressed a lot of basic concepts (voice, style, punctuation and grammar, tense, adjectives, adverbs, narration, point of view, etc.) it was a phenomenal read, and the exercises were absolutely worth it. My plan is to read this book again in 5 years and do the exercises again--maybe every 5 years for the rest of my life.
I'm going to post a couple of assignments I did below (I won't bore you with all of them), but first I want to share a few quotes from the book that really stood out to me.
The first quote hit home quite hard, especially as I frequently complain to Josh that half the time he's the only person I see during a week. I also feel this strongly when I am revising my work, and am forced to make a decision about someone else's thoughts--do I change it the way they want me to, or keep it how I think it should be?
"Ultimately, you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgement that a work is complete--this is what I meant to do, and I stand by it--can come only from the writer, and it can be made rightly only by a writer who's learned to read her own work... until quite recently no writer had that training... they learned by doing it."
So that's what I'm doing here: practicing. Writing. Doing it.
The next quote is from her chapter on punctuation and grammar. Both are incredibly important, not only for making you look like you actually know what you're doing, but because they are essential for your reader's comprehension. Punctuation is a common language that we use to communicate intention and meaning in complex ideas, and even though we writers use copy editors to fix our mistakes, it's on us to make sure our ultimate meaning is clear.
"That's the important thing for a writer: to know what you're doing with your language and why. This involves knowing usage and punctuation well enough to use them skillfully, not as rules that impede you but as tools that serve you."
And, if I might add, tools that help you communicate your ultimate meaning to your reader. It's all well and good to be able to string words together, but unless your reader knows how they're meant to be read, your meaning will remain unclear.
The next quote is from her chapter on Person and Tense. For those of you that don't know me well, here's a fun fact: I have opinions. Very strong opinions, frequently, though I'm not apt to share them unless I trust someone, and rarely on social media. One of my strong opinions is that I really dislike present tense. It stresses me out when I read it or write it, however, I also know it's a very popular style currently, and a lot of excellent writers (read: Hunger Games) use it as a tactic. I've thought about trying to write in present tense to attract more readers, but Ursula K. Le Guin put me at ease. She said:
"At the moment the present tense is in fashion; but if you're not comfortable with it, don't let yourself be crowded into using it."
The thing is, this is true with pretty much everything about writing. Avoiding adverbs is in style right now, too, but that doesn't mean all adverbs are bad or that you should never use them (Though Stephen King disagrees). Vigilante and dystopian stories are popular right now, but that doesn't mean you have to write them. Vampires are in fashion at the moment as well--you don't have to write about vampires. It's important to write your story, the story you want to tell, not the stories other people think you should tell.
Towards the end of the book, Le Guin goes into detail about how to choose what to put in a book and what to leave out. The last exercise of the book was to write a 400 word scene, and then cut out 50% of it (it was traumatizing). My biggest takeaway was from that chapter was a single quote, that is both meaningful and hilarious:
"Some say God is in the details; some say the Devil is in the details. Both are correct."
And the last quote I want to share sort of sums up how I feel about writing in general:
"I like my image of 'steering the craft,' but in fact the story boat is a magic one. It knows its course. The job of the person at the helm is to help it find its own way to wherever it's going."
And that's what I am to do--become a better boat driver. Or pilot. Or captain--whatever they're called. A better writer. A better storyteller.
Below you will find some of the exercises I did as I was working through the book. I'll be honest, I don't really like to share rough draft work, as I know it could be way better than it is, but I'm working hard to be forgiving of myself for this project. That said, i did choose what I think are the my three best responses to the exercises, despite their lack of editing.
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Exercise 1: The Sound of Your Writing
This is the first exercise in the book. (I summarized the instructions--the exercises in the book have much lengthier descriptions.)
Part 1: Write for pleasure. Have fun, cut loose, play around, repeat, invent, feel free.
Part 2: Describe an action or a strong emotion with rhythm; make the movement of the sentences represent the physical reality of the scene.
Both parts are included below:
Soaked. Completely soaked—my jeans, my shirt, my underwear. Even my brain felt wet. I stumbled forward with sand sticking—stuck—all over me, to my feet, my hands, my hair. And salt, almost sticky, a thin coating on every inch of my skin.
Behind me, the waves crashed against each other and against the shore. The wind blew mightily; the palm trees creaked and bent in the face of its powerful gusts. Rain pelted my face so hard that it stung, and the thick water in the air made it difficult to see any distance in front of me.
I slowly made my way up the sandy beach, grateful for the shore, the ground beneath my feet. But I had no idea when the storm would end, or at least calm to a steady rain. I kept walking, up the beach, over the rocks, into the trees that groaned under the strength of the wind. Bushes filled the ground beneath them, and their leaves too, swayed and waved in the turbulent air. I pushed further and further inland, my legs sore and my eyes burning, but all I could see were more rocks, trees, and bushes, swaying, bending, rocking, back and forth, back and forth, to the rhythm of the storm, the rain, the wind.
I finally sank to my knees, head bowed, water rushing through my hair. There was nothing, no shelter, no food, no hope, and I was alone.
“Help, I whispered quietly.
And then, the clouds broke and one single ray of sunshine peeked through. I looked up through the forest of palm trees; it was so beautiful, the light shining on the greenest greens I’d ever seen, and the bluest blues of the sky. There were flowers—periwinkle, magenta, crimson, and golden—and a brilliant rainbow contrasted against the roiling gray clouds behind it. And I cried.
Then the sun was gone, and the rainbow, and the colors, but I had seen an end, the end of the storm. I smiled and dragged myself to my feet. I would keep on for as long as the new-found hope lasted. I would keep on.
Exercise 2: Sentence Length and Complex Syntax
One of the assignments for this chapter was to write a half a page that is all one sentence. I found it challenging--I like pauses and periods and space between ideas. This is based on a real-life experience.
There we were, in the car (I was driving, of course) on the way to the doctor’s office, and my grandmother insisted that the doctor needed to increase her brain medication, because after all, it wasn’t working so well now was it and she simply must have more of it to make her brain better again; this, of course, is not how Alzheimer’s medication works and I found myself in the unenviable position of having to explain to my own grandmother, who I had lived with and eaten with and gone to see shows with and gotten a dog with, that she was never, in fact, going to get better and that her medication only slowed the decline, it didn’t fix it altogether—and I had to explain this to her while simultaneously knowing that, due to the very disease she was taking the medication for, she would not, could not, possibly understand what I was telling her no matter how clearly I explained it or how loudly I spoke—and when we arrived she promptly asked the doctor to give her more brain medication, to which he responded quite simply: no.
Exercise 3: Verbs: Person and Tense
Tense and person, two things that every writer struggles with at some point. I loved this assignment, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Part 1: Write a short story about an old woman, in which the narration moves back and forth between “then” and “now,” all in present or past tense (not both).
It seemed as if the green beans never ended. She carefully snipped and snapped bean after bean, her white hair shining in the afternoon sun.
It also seemed only a short time ago that she sat on this exact same porch, snapping a different heap of green beans, but with Walter beside her humming nearly incoherent songs from their youth, and muttering about how the Williams’ boys were likely to send a baseball through a car window if they weren’t careful.
Cumulus clouds hovered on the horizon, floating gently against a baby blue sky. It was quieter now than it used to be, and she knew fewer people in the neighborhood than she used to, but it was still nice. She still liked it.
Back when the Chansey twins had lived next door, things had been a lot livelier. Their dad had died, and Walter had always done things around their house for their mom to help out—fixing the plumbing, mowing the lawn, putting up a fence. And the girls had almost made her house their second home. They would run through the front door, shoes covered with mud, hair in braids, and beg for cookies or pie or whatever other tasty treats she had made that day. She missed them. But now Emma was studying to be a neurosurgeon and Ellie had gone and married a neurosurgeon—she had become a lawyer first—and soon they would have children of their own and forget all about her.
She leaned back, the pile of green beans in her bowl, and rocked slowly in her chair. So much time had passed, but it almost seemed like no time at all.
Part 2: Write the same story from a different person, but tell it where “then” and “now” are in different tenses.
My fingers ache from the arthritis and the rain that will be coming sometime this afternoon. Green beans cover my lap, and while I know they don’t have to be done—I’m the only one that eats them now—it soothes me.
Tendrils of loneliness slide through my thoughts, but I try to ignore them. Walter would have said, “Listen to that snap, my sweet Henrietta, don’t listen to those aches and pains.” And that’s all loneliness is after all, just the aches and pains of a long life.
I miss Walter. He asked me to marry him after only one date, and I said no. But he looked so handsome in his nice suit and tie, with his hair just cut and his tie a little crooked, that I told him he could ask me again in three months. I said yes the second time. We were happy for fifty-six years, three months, and two days.
The wind, when it blows, tosses my white hair all over, a mess, a jumble. But I just tuck it behind my ear and keep at the green beans, snip, snap, snip, snap. Mrs. Hadfield waves at me from across the street, one child on her hip and three more in tow. They moved to our neighborhood only about eight years ago, just after their oldest was born. I sent Walter by with a loaf of bread and some cookies a few weeks later, after they had settled, and he was gone for four hours, helping Mr. Hadfield assemble a playset in the backyard. Someone had given it to them as a gift, and Mr. Hadfield didn’t have much experience with that sort of thing. They finished the cookies off before Walter even came home.
A small smile crosses my lips as I remember this. Walter always made me smile so, and he still does, even though he’s gone. A picture of him sits on the mantel. In it, he wears pants covered with paint and has mud smeared all over his face. He was never happier then when he was working.
For his 35th birthday, I saved up all my extra change, every penny I could spare, and I ordered him a brand new flannel shirt from the Sears Catalogue. He put it on immediately and went to mow the grass. When I looked out, he was on the ground, just in his white t-shirt, changing the oil in the car. When I asked where his new shirt was, he pointed proudly to a hook where he had hung it so it wouldn’t get dirty. I lifted it and gasped at the filth that covered it. He gasped too.
Turned out, he had hung up an old rag made from flannel, and was using his new shirt as a rag instead. We both laughed until we cried, and he wore that old shirt for years, despite the oil stain right across the front.
Mrs. Hadfield hands the baby to her husband through the door, and sends the other kids in before coming out to unload the groceries. It will be dinnertime at their house soon, and then bedtime.
The rocking chair creaks and the wind gently blows. My fingers just keep snap, snap, snapping the beans. Snip, snap, snip, snap.