- Birthday, Books, Quotes, Reading, Writing

Ursula K. Le Guin on Language, Writing, Revolution, and More

Happy birthday, Ursula K. Le Guin! Here are some quotes from the writer:

 

“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”

 

“Our model of the cosmos must be as inexhaustible as the cosmos. A complexity that includes not only duration but creation, not only being but becoming, not only geometry but ethics. It is not the answer we are after, but only how to ask the question.”

 

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”

 

“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

 

“The Revolution is in the individual spirit, or it is nowhere. It is for all, or it is nothing. If it is seen as having any end, it will never truly begin. We can’t stop here. We must go on. We must take the risks.”

 

“After all, dictators are always afraid of poets.”

 

“Language is strange.”

 

“We read books to find out who we are.”

 

“As you read a book word by word and page by page, you participate in its creation, just as a cellist playing a Bach suite participates, note by note, in the creation, the coming-to-be, the existence of the music. And, as you read and re-read, the book of course participates in the creation of you, your thoughts and feelings, the size and temper of your soul.”

 

“The book itself is a curious artifact, not showy in its technology but complex and extremely efficient: a really neat little device, compact, often very pleasant to look at and handle, that can last decades, even centuries. It doesn’t have to be plugged in, activated, or performed by a machine; all it needs is light, a human eye, and a human mind. It is not one of a kind, and it is not ephemeral. It lasts. It is reliable. If a book told you something when you were fifteen, it will tell it to you again when you’re fifty, though you may understand it so differently that it seems you’re reading a whole new book.”

 

“Socrates said, ‘The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.’ He wasn’t talking about grammar. To misuse language is to use it the way politicians and advertisers do, for profit, without taking responsibility for what the words mean. Language used as a means to get power or make money goes wrong: it lies. Language used as an end in itself, to sing a poem or tell a story, goes right, goes towards the truth. A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it.

Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.”

 

“O foolish writer. Now moves. Even in storytime, dreamtime, once-upon-a-time, now isn’t then.”

 

“What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?”

 

“A writer who wants to write good stuff needs to read great stuff. If you don’t read widely, or read only writers in fashion at the moment, you’ll have a limited idea of what can be done with the English language.”

 

“Ultimately you write alone. And ultimately you and you alone can judge your work. The judgment 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. Group criticism is great training for self-criticism. But until quite recently no writer had that training, and yet they learned what they needed. They learned it by doing it.”

 

“To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.”

 

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”

 

“True myth may serve for thousands of years as an inexhaustible source of intellectual speculation, religious joy, ethical inquiry, and artistic renewal. The real mystery is not destroyed by reason. The fake one is. You look at it and it vanishes. You look at the Blond Hero—really look—and he turns into a gerbil. But you look at Apollo, and he looks back at you. The poet Rilke looked at a statue of Apollo about fifty years ago, and Apollo spoke to him. ‘You must change your life,’ he said. When true myth rises into consciousness, that is always its message. You must change your life.”

 

“All times are changing times, but ours is one of massive, rapid moral and mental transformation. Archetypes turn into millstones, large simplicities get complicated, chaos becomes elegant, and what everybody knows is true turns out to be what some people used to think.”

 

“The artist deals in what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.”

 

“You’ll know what to say when the time comes. That’s the art, eh? What to say, and when to say it. And the rest is silence.”

 

“It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.”

 

“You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing!”

 

“I have never found anywhere, in the domain of art, that you don’t have to walk to. (There is quite an array of jets, buses and hacks which you can ride to Success; but that is a different destination.) It is a pretty wild country. There are, of course, roads. Great artists make the roads; good teachers and good companions can point them out. But there ain’t no free rides, baby. No hitchhiking. And if you want to strike out in any new direction—you go alone. With a machete in your hand and the fear of God in your heart.”

 

“Some dreams tell us what we wish to believe. Some dreams tell us what we fear. Some dreams are of what we know though we may not know we knew it. The rarest dream is the dream that tells us what we did not know.”

 

“To think that realistic fiction is by definition superior to imaginative fiction is to think imitation is superior to invention.”

 

“Sometimes one’s very angry and preaches, but I know that to clinch a point is to close it. To leave the reader free to decide what your work means, that’s the real art; it makes the work inexhaustible.”

 

“Whenever they tell me children want this sort of book and children need this sort of writing, I am going to smile politely and shut my earlids. I am a writer, not a caterer. There are plenty of caterers. But what children most want and need is what we and they don’t know they want and don’t think they need, and only writers can offer it to them.”

 

“As a fiction writer, I don’t speak message. I speak story. Sure, my story means something, but if you want to know what it means, you have to ask the question in terms appropriate to storytelling. Terms such as message are appropriate to expository writing, didactic writing, and sermons—different languages from fiction. The notion that a story has a message assumes that it can be reduced to a few abstract words, neatly summarized in a school or college examination paper or a brisk critical review.”

 

“A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.”

 

“I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. […] Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. […] The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

 

“If you cannot or will not imagine the results of your actions, there’s no way you can act morally or responsibly. Little kids can’t do it; babies are morally monsters—completely greedy. Their imagination has to be trained into foresight and empathy.”

 

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

 

“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.”

 

“My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it.”

 

“If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person, if you declare it to be wholly different from yourself—as men have done to women, and class has done to class, and nation has done to nation—you may hate it, or deify it, but in either case you have denied its spiritual equality, and its human reality. You have made it into a thing, to which the only possible relationship is a power relationship. And thus you have fatally impoverished your own reality.”

 

“Nobody who says, ‘I told you so’ has ever been, or will ever be, a hero.”

 

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”

 

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”

 

“The bond between true lovers is as close as we come to what endures forever.”

 

“A profound love between two people involves, after all, the power and chance of doing profound hurt.”

 

“I talk about the gods, I an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.”

 

“Belief in heaven and hell is a big deal in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and some forms of doctrinaire Buddhism. For the rest of us it’s simply meaningless. We don’t live in order to die, we live in order to live.”

 

“By such literalism, fundamentalism, religions betrayed the best intentions of their founders. Reducing thought to formula, replacing choice by obedience, these preachers turned the living word into dead law.”

 

“They can keep their God, they can keep their Light. I want the world back. I want questions, not the answer. I want my own life back, and my own death!”

 

“What would that be, a world without war? It would be the real world. Peace was the true life, the life of working and learning and bringing up children to work and learn. War, which devoured work, learning, and children, was the denial of reality.”

 

“If civilization has an opposite, it is war.”

 

“War as a moral metaphor is limited, limiting, and dangerous. By reducing the choices of action to ‘a war against’ whatever-it-is, you divide the world into Me or Us (good) and Them or It (bad) and reduce the ethical complexity and moral richness of our life to Yes/No, On/Off. This is puerile, misleading, and degrading. In stories, it evades any solution but violence and offers the reader mere infantile reassurance. All too often the heroes of such fantasies behave exactly as the villains do, acting with mindless violence, but the hero is on the ‘right’ side and therefore will win. Right makes might.”

 

“Great self-destruction follows upon unfounded fear.”

 

“The individual cannot bargain with the State. The State recognizes no coinage but power: and it issues the coins itself.”

 

“I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but that if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty … to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.”

 

“We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.”

 

“No granite is so hard as hatred and no clay so cold as cruelty.”

 

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else.”

 

“As we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial. A boundless and generous contentment, a magnanimous triumph felt not against some outer enemy but in communion with the finest and fairest in the souls of all men everywhere and the splendor of the world’s summer: this is what swells the hearts of the people […], and the victory they celebrate is that of life.”

 

“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”

 

“Between thought and spoken word is a gap where intention can enter, the symbol twisted aside, and the lie come to be.”

 

“The more defensive a society, the more conformist.”

 

“Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.”

 

“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows brighter as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round, and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.”

 

“I forgot, being too interested myself, that he’s a king, and does not see things rationally, but as a king.”

 

“No, I don’t mean love, when I say patriotism. I mean fear. The fear of the other. And its expressions are political, not poetical: hate, rivalry, aggression. It grows in us, that fear. It grows in us year by year.”

 

“One voice, speaking truth is a greater force than fleets and armies, given time; plenty of time.”

 

“When action grows unprofitable, gather information; when information grows unprofitable, sleep.”

 

“To oppose something is to maintain it.”

 

“To be an atheist is to maintain God. His existence or his nonexistence, it amounts to much the same, on the plane of proof.”

 

“To make a thief, make an owner; to create crime, create laws.”

 

“Injustice makes the rules, and courage breaks them.”

 

“A child free from the guilt of ownership and the burden of economic competition will grow up with the will to do what needs doing and the capacity for joy in doing it. It is useless work that darkens the heart. The delight of the nursing mother, of the scholar, of the successful hunter, of the good cook, of the skillful maker, of anyone doing needed work and doing it well—this durable joy is perhaps the deepest source of human affection, and of sociality as a whole.”

 

“‘If you can see a thing whole, […] it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives….But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death.'”

 

“We’re not outside the world […]. You know? We are the world. We’re its language. So we live and it lives. You see?”

 

“To hear, one must be silent.”

 

“You must not change one thing, one pebble, one grain of sand, until you know what good and evil will follow on that act. The world is in balance, in Equilibrium. A wizard’s power of Changing and Summoning can shake the balance of the world. It is dangerous, that power. It is most perilous. It must follow knowledge, and serve need. To light a candle is to cast a shadow.”

 

“A wrong that cannot be repaired must be transcended.”

 

“Is power that—an emptiness?”

 

“What goes too long unchanged destroys itself.”

 

“‘When things don’t change any longer, that’s the end result of entropy, the heat-death of the universe. The more things go on moving, interrelating, conflicting, changing, the less balance there is—and the more life. I’m pro-life […]. Life itself is a huge gamble against the odds, against all odds! You can’t try to live safely, there’s no such thing as safety. Stick your neck out of your shell, then, and live fully! It’s not how you get there, but where you get to that counts. What you’re afraid to accept, here, is that we’re engaged in a really great experiment, you and I. We’re on the brink of discovering and controlling, for the good of all mankind, a whole new force, an entire new field of antientropic energy, of the life-force, of the will to act, to do, to change!”

 

“There is nothing important except people. A person is defined solely by the extent of his influence over other people, by the sphere of his interrelationships; and morality is an utterly meaningless term unless defined as the good one does to others, the fulfilling of one’s function in the sociopolitical whole.”

 

“Things don’t have purposes, as if the universe were a machine, where every part has a useful function. What’s the function of a galaxy? I don’t know if our life has a purpose and I don’t see that it matters. What does matter is that we’re a part. Like a thread in a cloth or a grass-blade in a field. It is and we are. What we do is like wind blowing on the grass.”

 

“[I]n so far as one denies what is, one is possessed by what is not, the compulsions, the fantasies, the terrors that flock to fill the void.”

 

“There is a bird in a poem by T. S. Eliot who says that mankind cannot bear very much reality; but the bird is mistaken. A man can endure the entire weight of the universe for eighty years. It is unreality that he cannot bear.”

 

“As I refuse violence, I refuse to serve the violent.”

 

“Easy victories aren’t worth winning.”

 

“The end justifies the means. But what if there never is an end? All we have is means.”

 

“To be whole is to be part; true voyage is return.”

 

“It’s a rare gift, to know where you need to be, before you’ve been to all the places you don’t need to be.”

 

“It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

 

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John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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