Getting the words right

Ursula K. Le Guin
By Gorthian – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31670340
Writers, whether new or seasoned, know well the central struggle of the craft, which is, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “Getting the words right.”

When you nail it, there’s nothing like it. The scene that sizzles, the story that moves readers — that’s what we live and work for as writers.

To me, no other fictional work has better captured the promise — and risk — of language than Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” which tells the story of a boy learning the art of wizardry. The boy’s aunt, a dabbler in spell-making, introduces young Duny to the mystical relationship between the entities of our world and the names by which we know and influence them:

She praised him, and told him she might teach him rhymes he would like better, such as the word that makes a snail look out of its shell, or the name that calls a falcon down from the sky.

“Aye, teach me that name!” he said, being clear over the fright the goats had given him, and puffed up with her praise of his cleverness. …

When he found that the wild falcons stooped down to him from the wind when he summoned them by name, lighting with a thunder of wings on his wrist like the hunting-birds of a prince, then he hungered to know more such names and came to his aunt begging to learn the name of the sparrowhawk and the osprey and the eagle. To earn the words of power he did all the witch asked of him and learned of her all she taught, though not all of it was pleasant to do or know. pp. 4-5

Young Duny (later to be known as Ged) learns that the purpose of developing his power is to enhance and protect life. One of the themes of Le Guin’s riveting tale is the danger that a wizard can misuse that power if it is wielded carelessly.

The point, of course, is that the power of language is not only real, but necessary for a full life as a human being in society and the world. When used thoughtfully, language connects and anchors us. I like the way Joe Moran of Liverpool John Moores University expresses the process in this Literary Hub article:

For the American writing teacher Francis Christensen, learning to write was also about learning to live. He believed that teaching his students how to write a really great long sentence could teach them to “look at life with more alertness.” It should not just be about ensuring that the sentence is grammatically correct, or even clear. The one true aim, he wrote, was “to enhance life—to give the self (the soul) body by wedding it to the world, to give the world life by wedding it to the self.” He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.”

“To give the world life by wedding it to the self.” Beautiful. Such moments make the rejections and rewrites worth it.

9 thoughts on “Getting the words right”

  1. I had to read Le Guin’s “The One Who Walk Away From Omelas” in a college lit class. Her ability to create a parable was amazing. That story stands in my mind along with a few from Raymond Carver, Alice Walker, and Flannery O’Connor as some of the greatest short stories. And you are correct, language does connect and anchor us.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well said. Incidentally I just finished Wizard of Earthsea, and while it’s not my favorite work of fantasy, I enjoyed it and would agree with your observation regarding the misuse of the power of language and naming. Pat Rothfuss’ ‘Name of the Wind’ also engages with this theme, though not quite in the same way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is epic, though in context I feel that assessment is too brief:
    “He wanted his students to become “sentence acrobats” who could “dazzle by their syntactic dexterity.” -Francis Christensen

    Liked by 1 person

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