Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Le Guin, Again

Awhile back, I wrote a post that mentions Ursula K. Le Guin's relatively tight position on "truth" in memoir. She struggles with the increasing allowance granted to memoir writers, as a genre.

I struggle with her essay on it, because while I fundamentally agree with some of her ideas - we have to be careful about how much leeway we give ourselves when we don't actually remember things, etc - I think that memoir is changing, for good or at least for awhile, and getting more free in form - more lyrical, less narrative. If our forms of memoir are beginning to resemble poetry over prose, even if in paragraphs, then the permissable also shifts. 

Just recently, I read another lovely essay by Le Guin from a different compilation, this one entitled Dancing at the Edge of the World. This paragraph, quite lyrical in its own way, may take two reads. But read it twice - it's worth it.

From Ursula K Le Guin's essay "Some Thoughts on Narrative":
Looked at as a “primary visual (sensory) experience,” in isolation, without connection to any context or event, each of our experiences is equally plausible or implausible, authentic or inauthentic, meaningful or absurd. But living creatures go to considerable pains to escape equality, to evade entropy, chaos and old night. They arrange things. They make sense, literally. Molecule by molecule. In the cell. The cells arrange themselves. The body is an arrangement in spacetime, a patterning, a process: the mind is a process of the body, an organ, doing what organs do: organize. Order, pattern, connect. Do we have any better way to organize such wildly disparate experiences as a half-remembered crocodile, a dead great-aunt, the smell of coffee, a scream from Iran, a bumpy landing, and a hotel room in Cincinnati, than the narrative – an immensely flexible technology, or life strategy, which if used with skill and resourcefulness presents each of us with that most fascinating of all serials, The Story of My Life.

What a wonderful way to put it - that we are, in fact, at nature, always trying to make sense of things. And yet, I would also add that being able to handle paradox, that which does not fit together neatly no matter how hard we try, is part of what the newer forms of memoir are trying to express. I am not talking about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces here - not about the ethical debates of "stretching details" or making things up. There I am in 100% accord with Le Guin - facts is facts, when you present them as such. However, we are always telling fiction (something Le Guin suggests memoir writers could do more of - write fiction "inspired by a true story") anyway, always constructing some logical sense out of things that really simply don't fit together other than by all being a part of our life somehow.

I would argue that the main reason to not write life as fiction, to allow ourselves to write and express it as confusing, lyrical and not always a clean narrative, is that we don't allow narrative to take us over, explain away everything, logicalize that which is inherently illogical. Celebrate the messes.

That, I have to say, I find an even more resourceful skill than narrative.


  1. I hadn't read that other LeGuin piece. Thank you!

  2. Beautiful, thoughtful essay, Miriam.

    I think your concluding comments about narrative -- "don't allow narrative to take us over, explain away everything, logicalize that which is inherently illogical" -- also apply to fiction, and perhaps to a distinction that might be made between kinds of fiction.

    All things being equal, genre fiction probably tends to "take us over, explain away everything" more than "literary fiction." Great fiction celebrates the messes as much as anything. That's why it's so haunting and multilayered.

  3. I don't know if I like any of the boundaries we try to place around writing. The definitions are murky at best and once you get into the details... does it even matter? But I may also be strange as I think of my life more of a poem than prose.