Once upon a time I read a book by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Language of the Night*. This is not one of her (many brilliant) science fiction or fantasy novels. This is her first book of essays about writing. (Get hold of it if you can; it is brimming with insight and intelligence about imagination and children’s literature).
In the first essay in this marvellous book, Le Guin recalls the moment, at age twelve, when she realised that she would be/could be a writer.
She’d found a book on her parents’ bookshelves called A Dreamer’s Tales by Lord Dunsany (a English baron, no less). She writes, ‘I opened it, standing beside the battered green armchair by the lamp; the moment is perfectly vivid to me now.’
Like many children, she was already a great reader of myth, legend and fairy tale, and in Dunsany she found, to her surprise, that ‘people were still making up myths’ and even more surprisingly, ‘here was a grown-up doing it, for growups without a single apology to common sense, without an explanation, just dropping us straight in to the Inner Lands.’ That moment, she says, was decisive: ‘I had discovered my native country.’
When I was in my first year of high school, I had my own ‘battered green armchair’ moment. I was standing beside the librarian’s desk in the (battered white) prefab that was my school library. I was reading the first page of A Wizard of Earthsea, by – yes, you guessed it – Ursula K. Le Guin: ‘The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards.’
Le Guin’s combination of simple, beautiful prose and captivating story swept me along and didn’t let me go until I came to its remarkable ending. Here is magic, I thought.
Of course, I went off to try my hand at it. In English class, unfortunately. My fantasy story came back from the teacher red inked with that old chestnut: Write what you know. And when I left school, that’s what I did. I became a sociologist. I specialised in youth studies and I wrote non-fiction, confident that I was writing what I knew because it was all based on careful research.
During the years when I was doing that, I was also travelling and trying to learn how the world works. I met some inspiring people who taught me a great deal about struggles for human rights and I met some wonderful teenagers through my youth studies research.
I also read a lot of fiction.
About twenty-five years after ‘write what you know’ was inked on my paper, I decided to try again to write a story. It took a bit of practice, but after a few years I wrote The Bridge. It’s set in an imagined city and is about some teenagers in an imagined war. But when I look at it I realise that I’ve poured a lot of ‘what I know’ into the world-building and the characters in that story.
So, yes, I’m still writing what I know. But I’m also making stuff up. And I’m loving doing that.
We understand better now (than we did when I was growing up) that a huge part of what children and young people know is the world of the imagination, and that stories that nourish the imagination are core to their development.
Le Guin says, in her second essay: ‘For fantasy is true of course. It isn’t factual but it is true... Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books.’
Finally she says, ‘It is by such statements as, “Once upon a time there was a dragon,” or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.'
What’s your battered green armchair moment?
*The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Susan Wood, Berkley Books, 1979
Learn more about Jane and her book on the Text Publishing website.