Tag Archives: Maria Popova

Imagination and The Operating Instructions

It’s always good to find someone who practises what she preaches, and even better when that someone is a writer. In this case, it’s Ursula K Le Guin, who writes about writing as well as having given readers some of the most imaginative fiction there is. She combines story and thoughtfulness in ways that enthral children as well as adults. And her key word is imagination. What is it? Why is it so important?

What on Earth is Imagination?

Of course, on earth is where Ursula Le Guin’s imagination does not leave us. She takes us to other planets, other times, other cultures and shows us that our world could be other, different, we could make it better. And this difference depends on our imaginations – her imagination as a writer, and ours as readers (and writers).

The word ‘imagination’ is often used interchangeably with ‘creativity’ she notes in The Operating Instructions, her talk in 2002 to a meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts. But it is worth considering why we have two words, and why one might serve writers better.

Businesses and many organisations like the word creativity because it sounds as if it leads to outcomes: there will be creations. As Ursula Le Guin says

In the marketplace, the word creativity has come to mean the generation of ideas applicable to practical strategies to make larger profits. (3)

But imagination is not a means of making money. Imagination is a bigger concept than creativity. In her words imagination is ‘a tool of the mind’, the most useful tool we have.

Why is imagination so important?

People we respect make a great deal of imagination.

Albert Einstein: Logic will get you from A to Z. Imagination will get you everywhere. (Twitter meme)

Ada Lovelace: Imagination is the Discovering facility, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live. (From her letters, quoted by Maria Popova)

Ursula Le Guin: I think the imagination is the single most useful tool mankind possesses. It beats the opposable thumb. I can imagine living without my thumbs, but not without my imagination. (3)

John Lennon: Imagine.

Ada Lovelace suggested imagination was made of the ability to combine things, facts, ideas, conceptions, in new and endlessly variable combinations. And being able to conceive of things that can’t be seen, heard, touched, smelled, tasted – those things that do not ‘exist within our physical & conscious cognizance’. And for Ada Lovelace it was the mathematical sciences, the language of the unseen relations between things that required imagination. She saw imagination as essential to pushing the boundaries of mathematics, and within months she wrote the paper on computer science in 1843 that opened the way for computer programming.

The connection to literacy

Speaking to the meeting of the Oregon Literary Arts, Ursula Le Guin made the strong connection between imagination, literacy, words, cultural stories and hope for the world. I find her short piece inspiring. I immediately want to take imagination for a walk.

She suggests that we need to learn to use the ‘tool of the mind’. This is an important idea for our school curriculum, and for supporting human development.

We need to learn to use it [imagination], and how to use it, like any other tool. … Young human beings need exercises in the imagination as they need exercise in all the basic skills of life, bodily and mental: for growth, for health, for competence, for joy. This need continues as long as the mind is alive. (4)

Literacy, the capacity to use words is central to this learning about and to use imagination.

We are a wordy species … Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on. (4)

Stories are the ways that cultures define themselves and teach their children how to be people and members of their people. She has explored these ideas in the fantasy novels, the Earthsea Trilogy. I recommend these for an imaginative quest for the significance of words and naming by a novice wizard as he journeys towards maturity and wisdom.

The stories of our culture, she says in the talk, provide us with a home. And therein lies the importance of reading and the understanding that using imagination is a community activity:

Reading a story, you may be told something, but you’re not being sold anything. And though you’re usually alone when you read, you are in communion with another mind. (6)

My great-grandfather referred to reading as half an hour’s conversation with a writer.

At the opening of her talk, Ursula Le Guin had referred to the instrumental view of learning and literacy summed up in this way: ‘Literacy is so you can read the operating instructions’. She ends with a revision of this view.

The reason literacy is important is that literature is the operating instructions. The best manual we have. The most useful guide to the country we are visiting, life. (6)

So …?

We must never stop using our imaginations. We must never stop training ourselves and younger generations in the skills of imagination. We must feed it with words and stories, with connections beyond our ‘physical & conscious cognizance’, with joy and those of us who write must follow the example of Ursula Le Guin.

Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016 by Ursula Le Guin, published by Small Beer Press in 2016. It includes the text of her talk The Operating Instructions.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin published together 1979. The three stories had been published separately, including by Puffin Books in 1972-1974.

See also my recent review of The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, for the Decades Project.

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A little rant about … writers’ work-life balance

Work-life balance is claimed to be essential for a good life, in the well-being movement. I reject the idea, for writers at any rate. In fact it annoys me so much that I am writing another in my occasional series of little rants. I reject the idea that balance is necessarily a good thing, in diet, expressing a view and in relation to life or work. This is why.

Separating work and life

The idea of balance, like a seesaw, or the scales of justice seems to be good like mother and apple pie. But balance implies that two things are separate and in opposition. This is clearly illogical: my life includes work; I can’t have work outside of my life.

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Seesaw: 1860s Jongensspelen (Dutch) via WikiCommons

Okay, so life, in the context of balance, means some kind of different thing from work – enjoyment, socialising, family, hobbies, interests, sleep, chores. But for many, many people the separation is not possible. Many people need to work long and exhausting hours to support themselves and their families. (I might do a rant about Cameron’s favourite phrase hard-working families if May resurrects it). Women in particular work both outside and inside the home, doing more of the housework and domestic chores. Life in the sense of not-work means so little to people who struggle to survive economically.

295-coveryear-of-the-runaways

Not only women, of course. It’s one of the most moving themes of Sunjeev Sahota’s Man Booker shortlisted novel The Year of the Runaways. Our eyes are opened to the sheer amount of work that the young men from India had to undertake in order to pay off the debts incurred in their project of coming to Britain. Frequently their families were in danger if they failed to make the repayments. Frequently there was no work. Or they had to take two or even more jobs. Life for them was working long hours in poorly paid illegal jobs or chasing badly paid illegal jobs. It’s a recommended but hard read.

Is balance a good thing?

It may be that by balance we really mean a more complex concept, integration, a sense that different aspects of our lives have connection and relevance, come together in wholeness.

It is possible to argue that unbalance in our lives, or parts of our lives, is a good thing. I argue this in relation to learning and to writing. The idea of cognitive dissonance, as a necessary precursor for learning, is one I find attractive. Cognitive dissonance means having or encountering inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes and this forces a person into rethinking preconceived ideas or understandings. It’s not balance but tension that is the dynamic force here. Being unbalanced is a good thing in this context.

I have been heard to argue at times that the purpose of writing is to create unbalance, uncertainty, requestioning.

Writing and living

As a writer I use my experiences, that is my life, to inform my work. There is no division between my writing and my life. I draw on my childhood, my years of regular employment, my previous writing, and what I read, see, overhear, experience …

What others say

295-cover-3-marriagesI am a great fan of Maria Popova and her Brainpickings. In one post in March 2015, linked here, she picks over the idea of balance in life by drawing on a book by David Whyte, the English poet and philosopher. The book is called The Three Marriages: reimagining work, self and relationship. It’s one I intend to read. She takes ideas of balance to a deeper level than I have, and as always says wise things. Her blog is a gem of thoughtfulness.

Over to you

Can you see any value in the idea of work-life balance for a writer? How is it for you?

 

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The Public Library by Robert Dawson

I find myself recently buying a few large books for leafing through. First it was one about women’s sheds: A Woman’s Shed by Gill Herz, photographs by Nicolette Hallett. The second featured the covers of Jane Austen’s novels in the last 200 years: Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret C Sullivan. And then it was the subject of this post: The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson.184 Pub Lib cover

I couldn’t resist this one having read a post by Maria Popova on the blog On Brain Pickings. You can read the post here and consider whether you would have resisted.

The book

The Public Library has a foreword by Bill Moyers, an afterword by Ann Patchett and other contributions from Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Dr Seuss, Charles Simic, Amy Tan and others. So many notable American writers, all reflecting on the wonder that is the public library.

In the United States – as in the UK – it appears that the public library is under threat. That means that the idea of the public library as free, accessible and local may not survive the next two decades. Robert Dawson is a believer in the free public library, clear about its significance in the States. What he says also applies to libraries in the UK:

Stoke Newington Library, London

Stoke Newington Library, London

A locally governed and tax-supported system that dispenses knowledge and information for everyone throughout the country at no cost to its patrons is an astonishing thing – a thread that weaves together our diverse and often fractious country. It is a shared commons of our dreams, our memories, our culture, and ourselves.

The project for his book is described at the start of chapter one:

The photographs in this book are intended to be a broad study of public libraries in America over an eighteen-year period. There are approximately seventeen thousand public libraries in the United States, and I tried to include the broadest range of them possible. My photographs capture some of the poorest and wealthiest, oldest and newest, most crowded and most isolated, even abandoned libraries. (13)

And so, what we get is 185 pages, most of them with B&W and colour photographs, showing the reader (the leafer-through) a very large variety of libraries – from the classical monumental building of The Handley Regional Library, Winchester, Virginia to the ‘Little Free Library’ in a replica of a school house on a post (think bird table) in Hudson, Wisconsin via the seed and tool libraries of California. Little Free Library is a community movement and you can find out more about it at www.littlefreelibrary.org I counted 15 in the UK on the website, but none near me in the South West.

A selection of libraries from the book

In the Main Library, Salt Lake City, Utah hangs a sculpture called Psyche, made of nearly 1500 small sculptures of books forming the shape of a head (p132).184 Psyche in Utal lib

Caliente branch library is situated in a former Pacific railroad station, in Nevada (p150). You can find libraries in a former gas station, bank, court house and church. A Library shares space with a liquor store in Minnesota.

In Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland there is a chess room (p47)

The Chicago Public Library was created from the ashes of the 1971 Great Chicago fire. From England the library received 8000 books donated by Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold among others (p98).

In praise of the public library

And perhaps the story that resonated most with me was Anne Lamott’s account of the direct action by writers and readers in Salinas California when they heard that all three of their libraries were to close due to budget cuts. They held an emergency 24 hours read-in by a group of actors and writers. The press coverage brought in enough money to keep the libraries open for a further year.

This is what she says about librarians.

I see them as healers and magicians. Librarians can tease out of inarticulate individuals enough information about what they are after to lead them on the path of connection. They are trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles – you turn a person loose who has limited skills, and he’ll be walloped by the branches. But librarians match up readers with the right books: “hey, is this one too complicated? Then why don’t you give this one a try?”

And about the threat to deprive the city of Salinas of all its libraries she says

Something has gone so wrong in this country that needs to be fixed, and we care about that. Books and reading are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us. Stories and truths are splints for the soul, and that makes today a sacred gathering. Now we are all saying: Pass it on. (166)

Yes – that’s what we must do: pass it on!

Related post: Anne Lamott’s advice to writers: A Visit from my Inner Critic

The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014 192pp

 

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