Ursula K. Le Guin on Where We Get Our Ideas From


It’s a big question—where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music?
It’s bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this:
Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said,

“The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.

”Now that is not a secret. But it is a sweet mystery.
And a true one.

For a fiction writer—a storyteller—the world is full of stories, and when a story is there, it’s there; you just reach up and pick it.

Then you have to be able to let it tell itself.

First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Wait in silence and listen.

Listen for the tune, the vision, the story.

Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes.

This is an act of trust.

Trust in yourself, trust in the world.

The artist says, “The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.”

Readiness—not grabbiness, not greed—readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately—to let the words be right.

Not almost right. Right.

To know how to make something out of the vision; that’s what practice is for.

Because being ready doesn’t mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that’s what writers mostly do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting.
Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories.

The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them.

The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience and readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, and a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar.

The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, “craft.”

With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness…
…you do your best to let the “idea”—the tune, the vision, the story—come through clear and undistorted.

Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously…

…this shaping a vision into the medium of words.

It’s what I like best to do in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it.

But I’m trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the “idea,” comes from. So:

The air is full of tunes.

A piece of rock is full of statues.

The earth is full of visions.

The world is full of stories.

As an artist, you trust that.

You trust that that is so.

You know it is so.

You know that whatever your experience, it will give you the material, the “ideas,” for your work.

~ Ursula K. Le Guin, quoted from her talk in 2000 in the Literary Arts lecture series, and included in the book, The World Split OpenGreat Authors on How and Why We Write, published by: Tin House. Image, courtesy of Tin House.

Sharing this humble but beautiful offering, not wanting to leave you short-changed. Know I rarely mention the evil inner gremlin but since NaNoNERVEmber it’s been calling all the shots, and I steeped in quite the grandest set-back in years. So although still having to be ever-so careful, especially with my hands, hoping things will soon be looking a little less capricious, much like the condition itself, and the new post up to [I hope] edify and delight you as soon as said gremlin makes it possible.

Wishing you all the one of the happiest, loveliest, most joyful, and creative of years yet. Namaste. ♥

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