Conversations on Writing

Meghan Hollis
Jun 11 · 9 min read

A Feminist Bookshop, An Odd Encounter, and a Book Review

Photo by Jessica F on Unsplash

Yesterday, I went to the local feminist bookshop with my oldest kid. The atmosphere is always welcoming, and the selection is always excellent. I often find books there that I would not normally notice, and I love supporting local businesses. We browsed around for a bit, bought some books and some other things (patches and pins for my kid’s jacket), and headed out to the car.

As we were getting in the car, a young couple walked by us. I picked up on their (rather loud) conversation at the point where she said, “Oh look! A bookstore. Let’s go in!”

He responded, “That’s a LESBIAN bookstore. You don’t want to go there.”

Her response? “Ew. Never mind. You mean they have their own bookstores, too?”

Needless to say, I was not pleased about this conversation, particularly that it happened in front of my kid. Now, my kid is an adult and can fend for themself, but I still was pretty angry.

I started to wonder why they would call a feminist bookstore a “lesbian bookstore” and why it would be “ew” if it was. Although I am not a lesbian, I would definitely go to a lesbian bookstore. I love the different “niche” bookstores we have around town, and I go to as many of them as I can. I just enjoy being exposed to the different perspectives of the owners and employees and the variety of books stocked in the different shops.

We made a couple of other stops and went home. After dinner, I settled on the sofa to read one of the books I picked up. As usual, I was not disappointed.


Conversations on Writing

The book I decided to read is called, and it provides a dialogue between Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon when he was interviewing Le Guin for the radio. They provided excerpts from some of those conversations, and it provides a fascinating view of Le Guin’s views on writing and the craft.


Imitation

They discuss the use of imitation to train in the arts. David Naimon points out:

Le Guin responds:

This made me reflect on some of the fan fiction novels that have been published in recent years. The vast majority of them are utter crap, but they get published anyway. I wish that the authors had taken Le Guin’s advice and saved us from the works of imitation where they were exploring their craft and learning to write.

Unfortunately, there is such a rush to publish that we end up with less than great fiction (and nonfiction) being produced. Not enough writers take the time to write properly and to edit properly. They are after the end product — seeing their book in print and their name on the cover of the book.

The real purpose of imitation is to learn from the great authors of the past. We can learn a variety of techniques by reading reading reading and then trying to imitate the style or the technique. Not enough writers are taking the time to practice and refine their art. They are in too much of a hurry to get their work out into the world.


Ego, Writing, and Imposter Syndrome

I also think that the invasion of ego into writing (I refuse to call a lot of what is currently published literature) is wrapped up in this. We start out by imitating the writers that we admire, but then ego gets in the way. We want to see our name on the book. We want to be the one that everyone follows on Twitter. We want to be the one that is signing books at a book signing. The focus is on the fame of being a writer rather than the process of crafting a work of art. No one has the patience to learn the art and perfect it.

Le Guin and Naimon discuss the level of uncertainty a writer faces noting that the uncertainty is there whether you are a new writer or a seasoned writer. One of my favorite quotes from the book highlights Le Guin’s uncertainty despite being an icon to writers:

There are a couple of things that are really striking about this statement. First, she is stating that she realizes just how much she does not know. That takes a lot of strength and courage. One of the biggest lessons I learned in my doctoral studies was the importance of knowing when to say “I don’t know”. We are not great oracles of knowledge. Second, she is talking about her discomfort when others see her lack of knowledge. We do not like to be vulnerable.

Later on the discussion shifts to the danger of ego:

When ego invades our writing, the work becomes about “I” and “me”. We lose the reader to our selfishness. This reminds me of an important thing that I have learned time and time again — ego is one of the most destructive forces.

The conversation shifts back to the solitude of the writer and the constant presence of self-doubt.

When I was in graduate school, my mentor told me that I would lead a very lonely life. Only recently have I realized how true that statement was. Writers tend to work in solitude. This solitude can create self-doubt and a sense of isolation combined. We are constantly questioning our work, and there is always a question of if it will measure up to the “greats” who came before us.


Reading, Writing, Creativity, Schools, and Education

The conversations on writing examine reading, writing, and education. Early on, Le Guin critiques schools for the lack of reading and the diminishing focus on grammar:

Students are rushing to prepare for tests today, and teachers are evaluated based on how well their students perform on tests. When I was still a college professor, I was appalled at how poor the grammar and usage was when my students wrote essays and papers.

Beyond encouraging reading and writing and teaching grammar, schools are failing our students in another important way: They are failing to promote and foster creativity.

We do not encourage kids to read and explore fiction any longer. I remember when my daughter was in sixth grade, they were told to select a memoir or biography for her English class. I told her to look through my shelves and see if anything caught her attention. She selected by Virginia Woolf. I was perfectly fine with her selecting this book, but her teacher was concerned about the content. She did not want her student encountering some of the difficult content. We need to stop telling students they are not smart enough for the content or that the content is too difficult or too dark for them. If a kid wants to read something, let them. Just be prepared to answer their questions (or give them another book to explore that will reveal more truth).

We spend too much time preparing kids for the workforce now. The focus of education has become getting a job later on. We don’t prepare kids for life and for a life of learning. We certainly don’t encourage our children to explore and use their imaginations. Students who exercise their imaginative powers are often shamed in the current American education system.

The unfortunate by-product of this failure to encourage the use of imagination has led to an adult fear of using the imagination:

We need to stop worrying about commodities and money and jobs and live our lives. Imagination is not just for kids, and fantasy novels are for everyone!


On the -isms in Writing and Publishing

The canon in literature is largely white and male. Beyond that, it is also elitist and mostly limited to the upper classes. Editors, agents, and publishers won’t even give a story a second read if it does not fit the conventions that they expect for formatting, grammar, and usage. This can limit the realm of published works to certain social classes, silencing the voices of ‘others.’

Valuable works can come from a variety of sources. We just have to be open to them.

Furthermore, Le Guin discusses how men get the attention in literature and women are often forgotten. The literature of women is not praised at the level of male literature:

We need to keep our eyes open for the various -isms in writing. We need to lift up, support, and celebrate the voices of those who struggle to have their voices heard in the literary world.


Conflict in Writing

The final point made in the conversations that caught my attention is the role of conflict in writing. In so many writing classes, books about writing, and other writing education sources we are taught that conflict forms the foundation of a good work of fiction. We are taught “the formula” for writing that will get published. Le Guin comments on this:

But there is so much more to life than conflict. Perhaps we can use conflict to highlight other aspects of life, but life is not entirely about conflict.


Overall, I enjoyed following the conversation in the book. I worked my way through the text fast, and at the end I found myself wishing for more wisdom and more perspective. The book was definitely worth the trip to the bookshop and the weird conversation in the parking lot.

Now I turn to picking my next read. This has become one of the biggest challenges in my life. I buy far more books than I could ever read. But, perhaps, that is a topic best saved for another article. Stay tuned!

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Meghan Hollis

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Meghan is a recovering academic and unemployed writer trying to make it without a “real job” (as her parents call it). She loves to travel and write about it.

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