Friday 9 June 2023

The Wave in the Mind

Finished June 3
The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on The Writer, The Reader, and The Imagination by Ursula K. Le Guin

I've been reading this book slowly, savouring it. Le Guin was such a great writer, and this book has her not only writing, but talking about the process, the craft, and how reading is a relationship we have with a book. She also, naturally, talks about being a woman doing these things, and some of her writing in that area makes me think of Rebecca Solnit on that subject. 
The personal essays at the beginning of the book captured me and made me want to share them with a cousin that also enjoyed this author. She's so much funnier than I expected. The first piece, Introducing Myself, which was written to be performed, is absolutely wonderful. One quote: "As a matter of fact I think sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all of the other spectator sports, even baseball."
Her second essay, Being Taken for Granite, has obvious humour right from the title and yet is thoughful and profound again right along with the humour. The next essay, Indian Uncles, gives some insight into her background and her parents, and the environment she grew up in. All of that is helpful in understanding in how she came to be the person she was. The essay My Libraries shows her feelings about libraries and what she values about them. She says a public library "must be available to all who need it, and that's everyone, when they need it, and that's always." The next piece is one she wrote for a magazine when she was asked to write about a favourite island. She had to think about it a while and finally chose Sauvie island on the Willamette river, where it enters the Columbia river. She gives some history of it, but talks about what makes it special and how it has, so far, defended itself against being spoiled in how it is used. The last essay in this section, called On the Frontier, was also written for a magazine, and talks about frontiers, physical and mental. 
The next section is called Reading and contains pieces about other writing, from Tolstoy to Borges to Mark Twain. I enjoyed her insights into these authors and their writing. There is also a very interesting piece in this section on rhythm in writing, both in poetry and in prose, and another about rhythmic patterns in the Lord of the Rings books. She also has a piece about reading poetry out loud, and I always like to read poetry out loud if I can, so that really connected with me. 
The third section of the book is called Discussions and Opinions. Many of the pieces here also touch on reading and writing. The first essay looks at narrative and the differences in fiction and nonfiction. The next piece was one that discussed awards and gender and started with an experience where a jury that consisted of three women initially picked only women  for the short list, and the discussion and actions that followed that. This experience drove her to amass some statistics on literary awards and the results were quite eye-opening. This naturally led into the theme of the next essay which looked at genetic determinism and a critique of the naturalist E.O. Wilson and his writing. The next essay talked about feet, and what we do to our feet in the name of beauty. Again, some thoughtful ideas emerged here. This was followed by another essay that touched on ideas of beauty, this time about pets (dogs and cats) and dancers. This essay talked about how we see ourselves and the beauty we see in those we care about that isn't what people who don't know them see. The essay that followed this one, again talked about beauty, and connected it back to the idea of rhythm, both in writing and music, and that made me think of these things differently. This is followed by the essay Telling is Listening, a discussion of communication. Not just communication between people, but also other creatures, and in indirect ways. She talks about conversation and how reading differs from watching television in that it is a conversation of sorts. She uses a lot of examples when she does this and that helps clarify what she is saying and making it understandable to the reader in real ways. The essay The Operating Instructions talks about literature is the guide to life, a manual on it for those that pay attention.The last essay in this section is a collection of thoughts on oppression, revolution, and imagination, grouped into themes. This essay is named from a quote by Primo Levi where he says "It is the duty of righteous men to make war on all undeserved privilege, but one must not forget that this is a war without end."
The final section of the book is one writing and includes talks that she has given when teaching writing, whether in classes or workshops. There are many things she brings into these discussions: trust, the writer's relationship with their characters, assumptions that writers make about their future readers, and the issues that accompany ego for a writer. She also has a piece dealing with that common question writers get about where they get their ideas from. This essay had a few paragraphs that really connected for me:
    Reading is active. To read a story is to participate actively in the story. To read is to tell the story, tell it to yourself, reliving it, rewriting it with the author, word by word, sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter.... If you want proof, just watch an eight-year-old reading a story she likes. She is concentratedly, tensely, fiercely alive. She is as intense as a hunting cat. She is a tiger eating.
    Reading is a most mysterious act. It absolutely has not been replaced and will not be replaced by any kind of viewing. Viewing is an entirely different undertaking, with different rewards.
    A reader reading makes the book, brings it into meaning, by translating arbitrary symbols, printed letters, into an inward, private reality. Reading is an act, a creative one. Viewing is relatively passive. A viewer watching a film does not make the film. To watch a film is to be taken into it -- to participate in it -- be made part of it. Absorbed by it. Readers eat books. Film eats viewers. 

As an avid reader, that really made sense to me. Later in the same essay she quotes Virginia Woolf about the need to feel the rhythm in a story to write well, and it is from this quote the she gets the title of this book. Woolf says "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 apparently had nothing to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it."
In the following essay she talks about the impulse to write and how writing comes to her. The last piece is a long poem about writing, which I read several times, getting more from it every instance. 
An amazing book. I borrowed this one to read, but have now ordered my own copy. 

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