Arts & Writing Writing tips: from writers for writers

“Violent and original”? How Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing routine fuelled her creativity

Check out Ursula K Le Guin's "ideal" schedule for writing
Ursula Le Guin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

‘There is nothing so dangerous to good writing as having too much time, too much liberty. You need the filtration system of being kept from your work,’ so said renown author Maggie O’Farrel – and in doing so touching upon an idea that has been entwined with writing and writing tips for years: that, in order to be a successful writer, you need a clear routine.

But what might such a routine look like? Well, we’ve previously covered how Kurt Vonnegut spent his writing days strictly split between writing and physical exercise, including swimming and “push ups and sit ups”. And now, we’re bringing you some more insights from another legendary author: Ursula K. Le Guin.

Le Guin is beloved by literature fans across the world – not only for her regular rallying cries for creative people to imagine new possibilities for the human race, such as an end to capitalism; but also for her ridiculously impressive body of work. Over a nearly 60-year-long career, the author produced acclaimed sci-fi novels like The Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven.

Each of these books deserves an entire article in themselves; yet what we’re interested in right now is how she put them together: writing every day, between 7:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

At least, this is what Le Guin claimed was her ideal writing routine. It first appeared in an interview she gave in 1988 (and more recently reappeared in Ursula Le Guin: The Last Interview and Other Conversations). It’s a simple and orderly schedule, and it runs as follows:

            5:30 a.m. – wake up and lie there and think.

            6:15 a.m. – get up and eat breakfast (lots).

            7:15 a.m. – get to work writing, writing, writing.

            Noon – lunch.

            1:00-3:00 p.m. – reading, music.

            3:00-5:00 p.m. – correspondence, maybe house cleaning.

            5:00-8:00 p.m. – make dinner and eat it.

         After 8:00 p.m. – I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.

What is interesting in the simplicity of this routine is that it’s not all that original. While it doesn’t necessarily have the same level of physical exercise that writers like Vonnegut suggest, it still has an orderliness that many authors covet. Think of what Gustave Flaubert once said, for instance: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

Well, Le Guin was most certainly original in her writing – even if her routine wouldn’t sound totally radical when speaking to other writers. What is challenging, however, is the reality that Le Guin forged her literary career at a time when it was eminently easier for writers to set up and follow such regimented routines set up to support their craft – and not have to worry about factoring in time to go to work, pay the bills, or look after their families in an era of stagnating wages, longer working hours, and “abject” incomes for writers.

While the challenges of balancing creativity with a day job are discussed beautifully by writers like Willa Cather, for those writers reading this struggling to fit into the type of routine that Le Guin follows, do not lose hope. Le Guin has also proffered plentiful pieces of advice for writers that require no set routine, but merely advocate for continued, passionate dedication to the craft of storytelling. She writes:

“The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

There are “secrets” to making a story work — but they apply only to that particular writer and that particular story. You find out how to make the thing work by working at it — coming back to it, testing it, seeing where it sticks or wobbles or cheats, and figuring out how to make it go where it has to go.”

And, as a reminder for all those creatives who measure the value of their work through critical acclaim or high sales figures, Le Guin has this to say:

“Making anything well involves a commitment to the work. And that requires courage: you have to trust yourself. It helps to remember that the goal is not to write a masterpiece or a best-seller. The goal is to be able to look at your story and say, Yes. That’s as good as I can make it.”

So, what does your creative routine look like? And do you think there is such a thing as the “ideal” or “perfect” routine we should aspire to follow? Share your thoughts in the comments below! 50

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