The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imaginationby Ursula K. Le Guin
Join Ursula K. Le Guin as she explores a broad array of subjects, ranging from Tolstoy, Twain, and Tolkien to women's shoes, beauty, and family life. With her customary wit, intelligence, and literary craftsmanship, she offers a diverse and highly engaging set of readings. The Wave in the Mind includes some of Le Guin's finest literary criticism, rare autobiographical writings, performance art pieces, and, most centrally, her reflections on the arts of writing and reading.
"What a pleasure it is to roam around in Le Guin's spacious, playful mind. And what a joy to read her taut, elegant prose."—Erica Jong
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in the early nineties as a performance piece, performed a couple of times, and
slightly updated for this volume.
am a man. Now you may think I've made some kind of silly mistake about gender,
or maybe that I'm trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I
own three bras, and I've been pregnant five times, and other things like that
that you might have noticed, little details. But details don't matter. If we
have anything to learn from politicians it's that details don't matter. I am a
man, and I want you to believe and accept this as a fact, just as I did for
see, when I was growing up at the time of the Wars of the Medes and Persians
and when I went to college just after the Hundred Years War and when I was
bringing up my children during the Korean, Cold, and Vietnam Wars, there were
no women. Women are a very recent invention. I predate the invention of women
by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented
several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn't know
how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and
their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn't get off
the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market,
and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn't make it to the
bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated,
and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead
of its time.
when I was born, there actually were only men. People were men. They all had
one pronoun, his pronoun; so that's who I am. I am the generic he, as in, "If
anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state," or "A writer
knows which side his bread is buttered on." That's me, the writer, him. I am a
maybe a first-rate man. I'm perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a
kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a
genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook
salmon. I mean, after all, can I inseminate? Can I belong to the Bohemian Club?
Can I run General Motors? Theoretically I can, but you know where theory gets
us. Not to the top of General Motors, and on the day when a Radcliffe woman is
president of Harvard University you wake me up and tell me, will you? Only you
won't have to, because there aren't any more Radcliffe women; they were found
to be unnecessary and abolished. And then, I can't write my name with pee in
the snow, or it would be awfully laborious if I did. I can't shoot my wife and
children and some neighbors and then myself. Oh to tell you the truth I can't
even drive. I never got my license. I chickened out. I take the bus. That is
terrible. I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man,
and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with
ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I
am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can't be too thin,
everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and
taut, because that's how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that's how
a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people,
people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the
right kind of people, are lean. But I'm really lousy at being people, because
I'm not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut. And
then, people are supposed to be tough. Tough is good. But I've never been
tough. I'm sort of soft and actually sort of tender. Like a good steak. Or like
Chinook salmon, which isn't lean and tough but very rich and tender. But then
salmon aren't people, or anyhow we have been told that they aren't, in recent
years. We have been told that there is only one kind of people and they are
men. And I think it is very important that we all believe that. It certainly is
important to the men.
it comes down to, I guess, is that I am just not manly. Like Ernest Hemingway
was manly. The beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences.
I do try. I have this sort of beardoid thing that keeps trying to grow, nine or
ten hairs on my chin, sometimes even more; but what do I do with the hairs? I
tweak them out. Would a man do that? Men don't tweak. Men shave. Anyhow white
men shave, being hairy, and I have even less choice about being white or not
than I do about being a man or not. I am white whether I like being white or
not. The doctors can do nothing for me. But I do my best not to be white, I
guess, under the circumstances, since I don't shave. I tweak. But it doesn't
mean anything because I don't really have a real beard that amounts to
anything. And I don't have a gun and I don't have even one wife and my
sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest
Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole
lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a
semicolon after "semicolons," and another one after "now."
another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he
did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a
life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences
aren't. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and
confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what
a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time
they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right
on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven't done one
single thing about it, with a gun or anything.
I mean is, if I had any real self-respect wouldn't I at least have had a
face-lift or some liposuction? Although liposuction sounds to me like what they
do a lot of on TV when they are young or youngish, though not when they are
old, and when one of them is a man and the other a woman, though not under any
other circumstances. What they do is, this young or youngish man and woman take
hold of each other and slide their hands around on each other and then they
perform liposuction. You are supposed to watch them while they do it. They move
their heads around and flatten out their mouth and nose on the other person's
mouth and nose and open their mouths in different ways, and you are supposed to
feel sort of hot or wet or something as you watch. What I feel is like I'm
watching two people doing liposuction, and this is why they finally invented
women? Surely not.
a matter of fact I think sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all
the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport
instead of doing it, I'll take show jumping. The horses are really
good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like
all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are
riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that
five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only
usually the horse doesn't remember it has the option. Horses aren't awfully
bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common,
though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up
a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often
forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex.
Never the other way round. But I'm too old now for show jumping, and as for
sex, who knows? I do; you don't.
course golden oldies are supposed to jump from bed to bed these days just like
the horses jumping the five-barred gates, bounce, bounce, bounce, but a good
deal of this super sex at seventy business seems to be theory again, like the
woman CEO of General Motors and the woman president of Harvard. Theory is
invented mostly to reassure people in their forties, that is men, who are
worried. That is why we had Karl Marx, and why we still have economists, though
we seem to have lost Karl Marx. As such, theory is dandy. As for practice, or
praxis as the Marxists used to call it apparently because they liked x's, you
wait till you are sixty or seventy and then you can tell me about your sexual
practice, or praxis, if you want to, though I make no promises that I will
listen, and if I do listen I will probably be extremely bored and start looking
for some show jumping on the TV. In any case you are not going to hear anything
from me about my sexual practice or praxis, then, now, or ever.
all that aside, here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, "a
sixty-year-old smiling public man," as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And
now I am over seventy. And it's all my own fault. I get born before they invent
women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I
forget all about staying young, and so I didn't. And my tenses get all mixed
up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and
a whole lot.
keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done
about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I
failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back
on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a
man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man.
An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I
wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole
thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short
in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If
I'm no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just
as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has
invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.
Taken for Granite
I am taken for granite. Everybody is taken for granite sometimes but I am not
in a mood for being fair to everybody. I am in a mood for being fair to me. I
am taken for granite quite often, and this troubles and distresses me, because
I am not granite. I am not sure what I am but I know it isn't granite. I have
known some granite types, we all do: characters of stone, upright, immovable,
unchangeable, opinions the general size shape and pliability of the Rocky
Mountains, you have to quarry five years to chip out one little stony smile.
That's fine, that's admirable, but it has nothing to do with me. Upright is
fine, but downright is where I am, or downwrong. I am not granite and should
not be taken for it. I am not flint or diamond or any of that great hard stuff.
If I am stone, I am some kind of shoddy crumbly stuff like sandstone or
serpentine, or maybe schist. Or not even stone but clay, or not even clay but
mud. And I wish that those who take me for granite would once in a while treat
me like mud.
mud is really different from being granite and should be treated differently.
Mud lies around being wet and heavy and oozy and generative. Mud is underfoot.
People make footprints in mud. As mud I accept feet. I accept weight. I try to
be supportive, I like to be obliging. Those who take me for granite say this is
not so but they haven't been looking where they put their feet. That's why the
house is all dirty and tracked up.
does not accept footprints. It refuses them. Granite makes pinnacles, and then
people rope themselves together and put pins on their shoes and climb the
pinnacles at great trouble, expense, and risk, and maybe they experience a
great thrill, but the granite does not. Nothing whatever results and nothing
whatever is changed.
heavy things come and stand on granite and the granite just stays there and
doesn't react and doesn't give way and doesn't adapt and doesn't oblige and
when the huge heavy things walk away the granite is there just the same as it
was before, just exactly the same, admirably. To change granite you have to
blow it up. But when people walk on me you can see exactly where they put their
feet, and when huge heavy things come and stand on me I yield and react and
respond and give way and adapt and accept. No explosives are called for. No
admiration is called for. I have my own nature and am true to it just as much
as granite or even diamond is, but it is not a hard nature, or upstanding, or
gemlike. You can't chip it. It's deeply impressionable. It's squashy.
the people who rope themselves together and the huge heavy things resent such
adaptable and uncertain footing because it makes them feel insecure. Maybe they
fear they might be sucked in and swallowed. But I am not interested in sucking
and am not hungry. I am just mud. I yield. I do try to oblige. And so when the
people and the huge heavy things walk away they are not changed, except their
feet are muddy, but I am changed. I am still here and still mud, but all full
of footprints and deep, deep holes and tracks and traces and changes. I have
been changed. You change me. Do not take me for granite.
Meet the Author
Ursula K. Le Guin is the winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Gandalf, Kafka, and National Book Awards. She is the author of many short stories and more than fifteen novels, including The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. She is also an honored author of children's books, poetry, and criticism.
- Portland, Oregon
- Date of Birth:
- October 21, 1929
- Place of Birth:
- Berkeley, California
- B.A., Radcliffe College; M.A., Columbia University, 1952
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Having read and enjoyed LeGuin¿s previous non-fiction works (particularly DANCING AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, THE LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT, and her writing book, STEERING THE CRAFT), I expected an interesting and entertaining volume of essays. What I got far exceeded my expectations. I was enchanted from the first words, and I could hardly wait to read as many of these pieces as I could gulp down each night. When I finished, I was unhappy it was all consumed. I wanted more. The book is a cornucopia of variety. There are serious essays, playful performance pieces, literary commentary, a long and wonderful poem entitled ¿The Writer on, and at, Her Work,¿ and even some sketches LeGuin has done. The volume is separated into four sections: Personal Matters, Readings, Discussions & Opinions, and On Writing. The first section gives the reader a glimpse of who Ursula LeGuin is. She talks a bit of her family, of her parents¿ occupations (anthropologist father and biographer mother), and of her love of libraries and islands¿imaginary and real. The next two sections cover all sorts of topics. Whether she was discussing awards and gender or the submerged humor of Mark Twain¿s ¿Diaries of Adam and Eve¿ or literacy or rhythm in the works of JRR Tolkien, I felt I was in sure hands. I must admit that I expected the essay, ¿Stress-Rhythm in Poetry and Prose¿ to be deadly dull. Instead, I was surprised beyond my wildest imagination to find that for the first time in my entire life, someone had actually explained meter and rhythm so that it made complete sense to me. I had one of those ¿Aha!¿ moments, suddenly understanding it in a way that I had never quite managed. (So _that_ is how iambic pentameter works so effectively!) I¿ve been raving ever since about rhythm to all who will listen. I like the fact that LeGuin does not hesitate to address sexism, homophobia, and unfairness. Her piece entitled ¿Unquestioned Assumptions¿ is masterful. She talks about the four common varieties of unquestioned assumption (We¿re all men, white, straight, and Christian), and then adds a fifth which she explores at length: We¿re all Young. Her analysis of these issues alone was worth the price of the book. The final section of the book is about writing and was my favorite section. LeGuin addresses many angles of craft and technique. The name of the book, THE WAVE IN THE MIND, refers to an explanation of style that Virginia Woolf once wrote in a letter. Concerning what rhythm is, Woolf had written, ¿A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind¿and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it¿ (p. xii). LeGuin obviously agrees with this. She writes that ¿every novel has its characteristic rhythm. And that if the writer hasn¿t listened for that rhythm and followed it, the sentences will be lame, the characters will be puppets, the story will be false. And that if the writer can hold to that rhythm, the book will have some beauty. What the writer has to do is listen for that beat, hear it, keep to it, not let anything interfere with it. Then the reader will hear it too, and be carried by it¿ (p. 183). This is sage advice. All of LeGuin¿s ideas and advice¿every chapter of it¿is wonderful. I loved this: ¿Trust your story; trust yourself; trust your readers¿but wisely. Trust watchfully, not blindly. Trust flexibly, not rigidly. The whole thing, writing a story, is a high-wire act¿there you are out in midair walking on a spiderweb line of words, and down in the darkness people are watching. What can you trust but your sense of balance?¿ (p. 234). The examples, stories, and allusions throughout are clear and strong and elegant. Her Voice is powerful and wise, humorous and reflective. Ursula LeGuin quite clearly displays true genius. This is a book to savor, to keep, to read again and again over the years. I cannot recommend it highly enough. ~Lori L. Lake, reviewer for Midwest Book Review and author of the ¿Gun¿ series