The Gifts of Ursula Le Guin

Ursula le Guin, one of my favorite writers, died this week at the age of 88. Le Guin is known for writing fantasy fiction, among other diverse works. Like many, I discovered Le Guin’s book as a child, although she wrote numerous novels, essays, short stories, and poetry in her long career. Like many other writers (e.g., Stephen King, Annie Dillard), she has written about the craft of writing. Her contribution to this genre is a book called Steering the craft: Exercises and discussion on story: Writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew (Le Guin, 1998). As one might expect from the title, this book provides ideas to writers, whether one wants to improve one’s craft as a writer individually, or with the assistance of a writing group. For  qualitative researchers, Le Guin’s writing on writing — along with her other work — provides a source of inspiration. 

Steering the craft is organized in 10 short chapters that deal with specific elements of writing. These include the sound of your writing, punctuation, sentence length and complex syntax, repetition, adjective and adverb, pronoun and verb, point of view and voice, changing point of view, indirect narration, and “crowding and leaping” (which refers to “focus” – what details are included, and what are left out). For any qualitative researchers who want to uses literary strategies in their writing, there are lots of useful ideas to consider and practice. Each chapter concludes with a writing exercise. For example, at the close of the chapter on punctuation, the writing exercise is entitled “I am García Márquez”. Readers are instructed to “write a paragraph to a page (150-350 words) of narrative with no punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices)” (p. 14). This is followed by ideas and questions to think about in relation to the exercise, and  questions for group discussion. The book includes numerous quotations from well-known authors, including Gertrude Stein, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, and J. R. Tolkien, and concludes with two appendices – a list of tips for how to organize and run an efficient writing group, and an explanation of the basics of verb tenses. The tips for a writing group are practical, and include the overall process, as well as instructions for manuscript reviewers (e.g., be brief and impersonal, it’s the writing that’s under discussion — not the writer), and instructions for authors (e.g., observe the rule of silence, take notes, don’t go into defense mode).

Then of course there’s Le Guin’s beautiful writing to turn to. When I was writing my dissertation many years ago, I came across the following quotation, which captured the dilemma I faced at the time: How could I accurately convey all of the stories shared by participants involved in my study? How could I adequately capture lived moments? At that time I felt overwhelmed and inadequate to the task. I came across a quote from Le Guin’s story, A man of the people (1995) that seemed to reflect the dilemma:

What is the use trying to describe the flowing of a river at any one moment, and then at the next moment, and then at the next, and the next, and the next? You wear out. You say: There is a great river, and it flows through this land, and we have named it History (Le Guin, 1995, p. 108).

In each study in which I engage, I more deeply recognize that as qualitative researchers, we will never be able to capture the “full” or “complete” stories of the people who generously share their stories with us. This is not cause to give up though! Perhaps our aims might be more modest – we can try to capture, in Le Guin’s words, the  “infinitesimal momentary glitter of a reflection of…” the phenomena that we study. I was encouraged by these words:

What you select from, in order to tell your story, is nothing less than everything,” he said, watching the branches of the old trees dark against the sky. “What you build up your world from, your local, intelligible, rational, coherent world, is nothing less than everything. And so all selection is arbitrary. All knowledge is partial — infinitesimally partial. Reason is a net thrown out into an ocean. What truth it brings in is a fragment, a glimpse, a scintillation of the whole truth. All human knowledge is local. Every life, each human life, is local, is arbitrary, the infinitesimal momentary glitter of a reflection of… (Le Guin, 1995, p. 116)

Le Guin’s writing will continue to inspire and instruct us, and we are much the richer for her body of work. I’m grateful for her literary gifts.

Kathy Roulston 


Le Guin, U. K. (1998). Steering the craft: Exercise and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew. Portland, OR: The Eighth Mountain Press.

Le Guin, U. (1995). A man of the people. In Four ways to forgiveness (pp. 93-144). New York: HarperPrism.

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