Steering the Craft:
Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing
for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew

by Ursula K. LeGuin


Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. ISBN 0933377460.
Reviewed by Dianne Lodge-Peters
Posted on 01/08/2001

Nonfiction: Creative Life

Ursula LeGuin's Steering the Craft is a how-to book for story writers who work in groups or by themselves. Within its 173 pages, LeGuin presents exercises, topics to mull over or discuss, and examples from other story writers who've mastered the elements, techniques, and skills of narrative language. Narrative is LeGuin's focus, and narrative is story. Life stories, memoirs, autobiographical sketches are all narratives; they are all stories.

Especially helpful to memoirists, I think, is LeGuin's slant on the idea of story. She offers "counterweight opinions...to unhook people from the idea that they have to make an elaborate plan of a tight plot before they're allowed to write a story." She says:

  • "Plot is a form of story which uses action as its mode, usually in the form of conflict...ending in a climax." (p. 145)
  • "We don't have to have the rigid structure of a plot to tell a story." (p. 146)
  • "Story is something moving, something happening, something or someone changing." (p. 146)
  • "Narrative...should end up in a different place from where it started. That's what narrative does. It goes. It moves. Story is change." (p. xii)
I offer my own experience of LeGuin's book. I had two life stories that needed to come out—the first about an amethyst stickpin that caused my father's brother to hang himself, and the second about a Dear John letter that came in a box also containing a giant dead cockroach. In other words, I had the general contours of "story": how my uncle's suicide affected the family, and the change in my aunt who saved a little box with a bug in it for almost 50 years.

Given the contours, the storyline, the chronology of facts, I simply worked alone, writing out LeGuin's several exercises in one of those composition notebooks that lies flat, has a blotchy black and white cover, and costs less than a dollar. I needed to find the sensory details and images, the points of view and voice, the "stuff" that quickened the life in my own life stories. I emerged from the notebook with that stuff intact; I didn't emerge with a full first draft in hand, but writing it came easily. And as first drafts go, it wasn't half-bad. In less than a month, from slugging and slogging through those really hard exercises (Oh, how I loved them then, and still do) I learned to distinguish between, say, the memoirist's "I" and the "I" of a person who keeps a daily journal: one is a character, the other has character. And more. Under LeGuin's direction, I found the kind of sacredness that honors the craft of telling our life stories.

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