To Trace a Path and To Follow It

Le Guin’s presence, as it has been presented and evolved over the course of her essays, is one of the cartographer.

            It happened on a whim, me finding a parent’s old paperback copy of The Lathe of Heaven. When I opened the pages of thar book, the following seeds were planted in my mind’s fertile soil. A human is born is not merely at their release into the world, but the moment of their recognition of themselves as an existence in the universe, at which point their immediate reaction is to figure out what exactly is going on. Once one becomes aware of it, this struggle and the struggle of survival are synonymous. To struggle with a world that not only withholds the answer, but denies it out of spite, casting you on the role of a defective actor, one who’s mere existence abhors the natural order to such an extent that any answer suiting them would be nothing short of blasphemy, is a Sisyphean task. What purpose is there in seeking the answer when the pursuit itself is rendered pointless? When I closed the pages of that book, I did not have the answer, but instead something more essential. The means to chart the answer for oneself and the methods to unwaveringly follow its course. All provided by the distinguished cartographer of the imagination known as Ursula K. Le Guin.

            Ursula K. Le Guin is a distinguished name among authors of fiction, as one with a particular brilliance in unravelling the uncharted seas of the mind. A lesser known but no less essential part of this distinguished work is her non-fiction writing. To classify it as non-fiction seems almost reductionist. Her capacity to guide one through her process of thinking, of uncovering new means of seeing the world in ways so thoroughly new, that one can hardly help but mistake them for fiction at times. And yet, the truth they resonate with always reach the reader with such directness and applicability as to be unmistakably real. Possibly her most striking example of this is in her 1986 essay The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction

            The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction is in many ways a template of all the elements that makes her non-fiction writing so engaging.  The piece seems to open impersonally, describing the hypothetical lives of prehistoric humans with the accuracy and authenticity one would expect from Le Guin’s anthropological background. Almost immediately, Le Guin works to mend the distance between her readers and her subject matter through a detailed description of all the various foods hunter-gatherers consumed, and how their various options would enable “the average prehistoric person [to] make a nice living in about a fifteen-hour work week” (Le Guin, Dancing, 249). Le Guin humanizes her historical subjects by framing their existence in modern terms. While this could simply be a convince for the sake of simplifying a piece’s historical consciousness, Le Guin takes it further and makes it the foundation of the entire piece.

            It’s in the elaboration of the piece’s true nature that Le Guin demonstrates one of the most powerful tools at her disposal, her playfulness. She describes the hypothetical lives of her tribe of pre-humans in familiar and unpretentious manner, maintaining a familiarly that encourages her modern audience to see them as extensions of themselves. This brings to the reader’s attention the dichotomy between the simple gatherers and the bold hunters, weaponizing her humanization to demonstrate the quiet nobility of the former, and to subtly deflate the exaggerated machismo of the latter. It is in this comparison that Le Guin realizes an unconventional use of historical thought, turning the past into a lens through which the present is examined. Later in the piece, she breaks down the imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, reducing what is popularly considered to be one of the greatest pieces of cinematic science fiction and reducing it to it bare, blunt, and very phallic essentials (Dancing, 250-251). Through her playfulness, Le Guin has deconstructed a fundamental narrative paradigm, and rendered it palatable to her readers by lowering their guard.

            This deconstruction of a dominant narrative paradigm gives way to Le Guin’s alternative and the arguable thesis of the essay, the bottle, i.e., the titular carrier bag. In classical essay tradition, Le Guin introduces this concept through referencing an early essayist’s work, namely Virginia Woolf. Specifically, an excerpt from her notebook where she creates subversive definitions for both “hero” and “heroism” (Dancing, 250-251). Le Guin takes these subversive definitions and runs with them, turning Woolf’s fleeting aside and expanding it into the thesis of her essay. Choosing Woolf specifically not only reenforces her deconstruction of the traditional paradigm but serves as a strong basis for her conception of the feminist alternative to that paradigm. She presents the carrier bag as an alternative to traditional conceptions of fiction, and her mundane descriptions of the lives of the gatherers retroactively become its prime example. The seemingly wistful and superfluous asides from earlier in the essay converge into a cohesive, self-demonstrating thesis.

            This is the primary strength of Le Guin’s fiction background applied to her non-fiction writing. Her capacity to make vivid vision of hypothetical concepts allows her to bypass both the stuffy and impersonal tone of an overtly analytical essay, while also avoiding the trappings of overfamiliarity that a more personal essay might fall into. It through making the reader engage with her ideas through these fictional constructs that she forces them to imprint their own conceptions onto them, allowing her to play with those conceptions at her leisure. This approach provides a level of reader participation that few other essayists can match.

            Though her narrative style of essay is her strongest, she is also adept at adding elements of a more inquisitive style to enhance her work, as she does in her essay Heroes. This essay works as a strong follow up to her previous one, as while Carrier Bag deconstructed the traditional concept of the Hero, Heroes goes on to reconstruct the concept on Le Guin’s own terms. It also does so by forgoing fictionalization in favor of her direct reactions to a historical body of work. This new approach maintains her fundamental strengths while utilizing the unique strengths of the inquisitive perspective.

            The essay opens with Le Guin’s reminiscence of the records of various famous expeditions to the arctic written by male explorers. Rather then gradually coaxing it out like in Carrier Bag,Le Guin immediately establishes a thesis by directly naming these explorers as those she would consider heroes (Dancing, 258). She draws the reader into her world by establishing the direct throughline between her admiration for these heroes and their influence on her work through examples, bolstering it through her established playfulness with a metaphor comparing her “[fermenting] ideas to “a good ’69 Zinfandel” (Dancing, 259). By borrowing these techniques from her previous essay, Le Guin can open an inquisitive work with a much stronger degree of reader investment then a more mundane approach would provide.

            She carries this strong opening into the proper form of an inquisitive essay, which is to present herself with a question and to ponder over it. Said question comes in the form of her strong negative reaction to the words of Shackleton: “Man can only do his best. The strongest forces of nature are arrayed against us” (Dancing, 259). Le Guin takes the reader through her process of rationalization, using her established personable presence to draw the reader into her observations. She dives into a more traditional analytical process to describe what it is about Shackleton’s previous words that failed her and finds her answer in the words of Scott. She culminates her analysis by examining Scott’s memoir not as a historical document, but as a narrative. By utilizing her grounding in fiction writing, she transforms the inquisitive essay and renders it in a state unique to her voice.

            Both her unique narrative take on the essay and the inquisitive variant have their distinct pros and cons. The more purely narrative essay has much stronger reader engagement, as the fictionalized elements lend themselves much more to a reader’s participation. This also grants it much more freedom in how to structure itself, able to deftly weave in evidence and analysis wherever it pleases in between its fictional vignettes. This lack of grounding, while a great strength, is also a great weakness, as a reader who is unable to engage with concepts being discussed will be unable to fully engage with the fictionalizations and will perceive the freely woven evidence and analysis as disconnected and superficial. The more traditional inquisitive structure avoids this by sacrificing that freedom. It maintains the power of the fictionalized pieces though its narrative interpretation of historical sources, while using the grounded analysis those structures necessitate to keep the throughline of thought easier for the reader to follow. However, this is still a diminishment of power compared to pure fictionalization. Though having a strong grasp of both forms would be sufficient in and of itself, Le Guin outdoes herself through a synthesis of both forms through her later essay Introducing Myself.

            Though I’ve prefaced this as a hybrid of her previous narrative and inquisitive-narrative styles, Introducing Myself in its preface applies to itself the unique label of “performance piece” (Le Guin, Wave, 10). This indicates a much stronger level of engagement then the previous two pieces, and its intent is to be performed live in front of an audience. Le Guin immediately establishes how she conceptualizes this in as an essay but pushing her playfulness all the way to the realm of absurdism. Her assertion of masculinity, the place and time that engendered it, and all the various flaws and contradictions associated with it blow her previous deconstructive tactics out the water with their sheer confrontationality. This level of confrontation is what truly cements it as a performance piece, a piece that so thoroughly demands your attention that the prime way to experience it so up close and personal that it cannot be ignored or avoided in any way. Yet even without the implicit coercion of a live presence, Le Guin’s prose is so commanding and compelling that even without a live presence it is a very difficult piece to ignore.

            Essentially holding the reader hostage is arguably a solution for the failing of the previous two formats, but it is in no way a guarantee that the reader will not refuse to engage, so the essay must still be airtight in its construction to maintain the audience’s attention after grabbing it. Le Guin accomplishes this by subtly weaving in the pieces of her major point between playful banter. She continues to deconstruct but dulls the edge of the Carrier Bag level of sharpness just enough that the reader can be suffused in it without being turned away. This is the strongest demonstration of Le Guin’s capacity to lead her reader.

            Her greater refinement does not mean she is above meandering in her prose. Far from it, the meandering nature of Introducing Myself lends itself well to expanding her essay’s scope in a way that keeps its thesis from becoming obvious, without being so far removed from the stablished ideas that it becomes a digression. She touches on the career prospects of woman, masculinity, the gendering of style, the media’s conception of sex, and the implicitly fascist nature of horse jockeys. All of this maintains the illusion of the serendipity of a natural conversation, while all secretly working towards a singular cohesive point. Even the nazi horse jockeys return at the very end to symbolically cap off the piece.

            All the emphasis on the structure of her pieces is important for understanding her style, but what truly elevates her work as essay writing is the immaculate presence she cultivates. This presence is clearly built from her most personal aspects, yet much of her work is light on direct autobiographical elements, and those that are included are often coached in external evidence and sources to supply them with substance. How can a reader clearly define a presence that is simultaneously personal yet distant, one that leads without imposing, One that so strongly felt while it’s true shape remains elusive? That is not to say she is obscuring the personal presence in her writing. In fact, there are a few works of hers that lay it quite bare.

In her short essay Being Taken for Granite, Le Guin demonstrates the qualities that define her presence through the essay’s content itself. She deconstructs the titular phrase (a common misnomer of the expression “taken for granted”), by taking it literally and using it as a metaphor to describe herself. She describes herself as akin to mud, something that is receptive to any and all forces that would act or imprint on it, as opposed to the stoic indifference of a hard material like granite. This universal receptiveness is not merely a quality that defines herself, but one she seeks to impose on her readers as well. To break down their solid preconceptions and to turn them receptive to the world around them in ways they are unprepared for, while giving them the tools to maintain themselves regardless.  Her method can be described as inverted ceramics, taking the hardened and uncompromising clay of her readers and melting it, returning it to a malleable state where it can reform itself as necessary to contain any and all new ideas thrown it’s way. She converts her readers into carrier bags.

Le Guin pulls a reader into her world not only with the strength of her imagination, but with a subtly of guidance that rivals the most overtly persuasive essayists. She has a path that is clearly set, but also one that was charted subtly, and without leaving any visible mark that the path she guides her reader through has even been charted, despite her having already done so with much diligence. Her fiction focused approach is the ideal method for this, as is helps dilute the reader’s preconceptions and make them receptive to her rhetoric. It is a peculiar yet miraculous persuasion that is defining of her presence.

            Le Guin’s presence, as it has been presented and evolved over the course of her essays, is one of the cartographer. Her work charts unknown territory with refined methods so subtle that they appear invisible. As a preface to The Wave in the Mind, Le Guin pulls an excerpt from a letter by Virginia Woolf from which she took the collections’ title. The excerpt describes the source of style as rhythm, and how this possession of the rhythm naturally causes the stimuli of the natural world to manifest as “[waves] in the mind”, that eventually break and tumble until forming into words that match the rhythm (Wave, 5). She quotes this passage because she identifies her own creative process with Woolf’s description, the description of the cartographer’s rhythm. It is a rhythm that is open to the world, willing to receive all that it has to offer, and to patiently listen for the traces of a path of truth to be traced and followed.

Her rhythm, combined with the merging of styles and their advantages reveals her other foundational strength, the subtle firmness of Le Guin’s guidance. Le Guin’s background as a teacher is evident in her writings, both in her ease at breaking down major concepts and the gentle yet absolute guidance she gives her reader in realizing them. This approach is well suited for the reader participation that is a necessity of strong essay writing. It is also the perfect complement of her rhythm, lending it a firmness without making it rigid. The combination of her foundational strengths, to trace by guidance and to follow by teaching, embody the core of the philosophy of Le Guin’s essays.

To set a path is to and to lead it is to impose, to be so assuaged of one’s own certainty in their way of the world that the truth cannot help but follow. The earth is warped beneath concrete boots in such a distinct manner that truth shall have no difficulty in tracing and following your path. But this is a misunderstanding. The truth has already set and walked its path, and we are the ones who follow. As opposed to contemporaries who may deny this, claiming the truth has somehow become unsportsmanlike, Le Guin accepts it. She accept that it is not our place to put ourselves before the truth, but to accept our role behind it. Tracing the truth is difficult however, as it of a much earthier substance (say, mud), that does not leave an easily traceable mark. Embracing this, rather than ignoring it, is Le Guin’s most valuable lesson. In tracing that which we have stopped to study, we find with more certainty that which we cannot see. We become willing to take the plunge on a path that is not laid out for us, to believe in our own judgment. That is why we must learn to trace rather than set, and to follow as opposed to lead. Le Guin spent her lifetime learning how to trace and to follow, and her work is the result of that learning. All that remains for me, and for us, is to take the first step.


            With this essay, I couldn’t help but try to accomplish something more than the parameters that were given to me. I felt obligated to, because of how much I respect the work of the author I’m covering. This resulted in what was undoubtably the hardest essay for me to write so far. I decided to cover only a small amount of her essays in detail because I really wanted to untangle the nitty gritty of her process. This proved to be a miscalculation on my end, as much of her writing is so short and self-contained that a consistent throughline is hard to trace with limited examples. In the face of this struggle, I allowed myself to fall back on old habits

            Though I did attempt to formulate a creative framing device, this conceit very quickly fell apart. I struggled to find a way to integrate this device with my analysis, and decided for the sake of efficiency to simply state my analysis in the most plain terms with the intent to incorporate it into the framing device at a later date. As the essay’s deadline approached, the opportunity to do so quickly narrowed, as I became more and more consumed by just trying to fill out the essay’s content that I had all but abandoned it. At the end, I even found myself creating an entirely new kind of framing device. I much prefer this second one, as the first one reads as much to forced and personal in hindsight. This second one may be the basis of a long term revision of the piece.

In terms of the actual analysis I found myself uncertain how much I needed to summarize and analyze respectively. This is another struggle of limiting myself, as there’s only so much, I felt I could write on such limited pieces before it just devolves into repetition. Even in its present state I feel repetition is a clear flaw of the current piece. That said, I don’t think the inverse route of stuffing the paper with as many examples as possible would have worked out either. Carless throwing in examples would not only dilute the overall point, but also make a cohesive point much harder to form, again, due to the standalone nature of much of Le Guin’s writing.

I think what ultimately made this paper a struggle was how it tempted me to fall back on the bad essay habits that my former schooling taught me, and my willing acceptance of that temptation. I still stand by much of what I wrote as analysis in and of itself, but I acknowledge that I’ve failed to convey that analysis compellingly as an essay in and of itself. I’ve always struggled with having to analyze the works of others, especially those I admire. While the pressure is preferable to the tedium of writing on a subject I have no interest in, neither are ideal conditions for my productivity. Still, I’m okay to think of this piece in its current state more as a template then a complete work for now. Something that can possibly be salvaged through revision, by making the analysis less repetitive, weaving a creative framing device more solidly through the whole piece, and maybe adding an extra example or two that eases the essay’s overall burden. Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself here, but that evaluation is one I’ll leave up for the professor to decide.

Excerpt Credit

K., Le Guin Ursula. Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Grove Press, 2006.

K., Le Guin Ursula. The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essys on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Shambhala, 2004.

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