Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Doing the Wave

Ursula Le Guin is one of my favorite authors. She has a book of nonfiction out, The Wave in the Mind: Talks on the Writer, the Reader and the Imagination. It is a wide ranging and interesting book. Le Guin is one of those writers who seems to know a lot about a lot of different things. She had the kind of childhood any reader would love, the family sitting around talking about books and even having writers and "intellectuals" to dine. Much of the book's content has been previously published in one form or another, or given as a speech or presented in a workshop. All of the previously published material was "played with" before republishing in this book. The book is broken up into four parts. "Personal Matters" are short, frequently autobiographical pieces. "Readings" is a collection of pieces on other works such as The Lord of the Rings and Mark Twain's Diaries of Adam and Eve. "Discussions and Opinions" is where things really get interesting. This section has essays on fact and fiction, gender, and rhythm. The final section is "On Writing" with an essay about the trust required between a writer and reader and another on the question she gets asked most frequently: where do you get your ideas? This essay is really about the importance of the imagination. The book takes its title from a letter Virginia Woolf wrote to Vita Sackville-West:

As for the mot juste, you are quite wrong. Style is a very simple matter: it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can't use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can't dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it. But no doubt I shall think differently next year.
Le Guin thinks this is indeed profound. In the essay "The Questions I Get Asked Most Often" she sees rhythm as something that is beneath the words. It is the force that moves memory, imagination and words and is the writer's job to dive down deep and find the rhythm (that reminds me of Adrienne Rich's poem "Diving into the Wreck" from the book of the same name). Le Guin appears to have been thinking about rhythm for a long time because she mentions it rather frequently in a book of unconnected essays, of which "Rhythmic Pattern in The Lord of the Rings" is all about rhythm. Another theme in the collection is imagination. America, Le Guin believes, if afraid of imagination. We are a people stuck in our Puritan heritage. Imagination is dangerous, unpredictable, impractical. We have also become a nation of passive consumers and those in power don't want us to be exercising our imaginations:
The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.
Imagination shows us how things could be different, how our lives and those of our neighbors could be better. Imagination allows us to see what it might be like to be our neighbors. I could go on and on about this book but that would bore you to tears. Instead of me yakking on, why don't you get over to your public library or bookstore and read the book for yourself? And if you are a person who is owned by a cat or a dog, the essay "Dogs, Cats, and Dancers: Thoughts About Beauty" is a must read. You will be on the floor laughing after the first paragraph.