Ursula K. Le Guin’s Daily Routine: The Discipline That Fueled Her Imagination

ursula k le guin writing advice

Image by Gorthian, via Wikimedia Commons

“Some of us are Norman Mailer,” said Ursula K. LeGuin in a 1976 interview with science-fiction fanzine Luna Monthly, “but others of us are middle-aged Portland housewives.” And though Le Guin may have thought of herself as one of the latter, “middle-aged Portland housewife” is hardly the way the rest of us would describe her. Over a nearly 60-year-long career, Le Guin produced an enormous body of literary work, including but not limited to the six books in which she created the world of Earthsea and other acclaimed sci-fi novels like The Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven. And somehow she managed to write all of it between 7:15 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. each day.

Or that’s what her ideal writing schedule dictates, anyway. Recently tweeted out by writer Michael J. Seidlinger as “the 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).


Beginning at the early hour of 5:30 in the morning, the time to “wake up and lie there and think,” it continues on to breakfast — and “lots” of it — at 6:15, and the commencement of the day’s “writing, writing, writing” an hour later, which lasts until lunch at noon. After that, Le Guin considered what we consider her main work to be done, moving on to such pursuits as reading, music, correspondence, “maybe house cleaning,” and dinner. Past 8:15, she said, “I tend to be very stupid,” a state in which nobody could write the sort of books we remember her for.

But however originally she wrote, Le Guin was hardly exceptional in living this way while doing it. “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work,” said Gustave Flaubert, a maxim true for enough writers that we also worked it in when we featured an infographic on the daily routines of famous creative people. In both Flaubert and Le Guin’s case (or in the case of a writer like Haruki Murakami, who rises famously early and runs famously hard when working on a book), their domestic lives, well-ordered to the point that an outside observer would find them boring, facilitated the creation of literature like none that had ever come before. This despite the fact that, on the surface, few novels could seem more dissimilar than Flaubert and Le Guin’s, but each writer would have seen what the other had in common: specifically, that they knew what it took to get the imagination well and truly fired up.

via Michael J. Seidlinger

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Watch the New Trailer for Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin, the First Feature Film on the Pioneering Sci-Fi Author

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Cleveland Museum of Art Digitizes Its Collection, Putting 30,000 Works Online and Into the Public Domain

The lines of the descent from the plutocratic wealth and autocratic power of the late 19th century to the worst atrocities of the early 20th might seem apparent to some people. So too can we trace from the Gilded Age an institutional system of monuments to art, culture, and higher learning unique to modern times. Whether by virtue of greed, guilt, or noblesse oblige, or some of all of the above, wealthy industrialists sought to show—as Andrew Carnegie wrote in his “Gospel of Wealth”—that “the houses of some should be homes for all that is highest and best in literature and the arts, and for all the refinements of civilization.”

The treasures of world culture were donated back to the world, but the proud beneficence of their givers lived on in the institutions. In the case of Cleveland telegraph magnate Jeptha Wade, who was himself a daguerreotypist and portrait painter, the memory of the generous gift continues in Wade Park, home of the Fine Arts Garden and the Cleveland Museum of Art, created from his bequest.


Now, over 125 years later, Wade’s patronage lives on online. “Brace yourself for some meme-worthy Egyptian cats and gif-able Renaissance babies,” as Zachary Small jokes at Hyperallergic.

The museum has just announced its digital collection with a poignant quote from its founder declaring it an eternal donation to humankind: “The statement ‘for the benefit of all the people forever’ was written into Jeptha Wade’s 1892 deed of gift for the land on which the museum stands… reflecting its founders’ belief that museums should be places for inspiration and for creating wonder and meaning in people’s lives.”

This may sound like ostentatious rhetoric, but the announcement also tells us that its free digital collection is “using Open Access,” which means “the public now has the ability to share, remix, and reuse images of as many as 30,000 CMA artworks—”nearly half of the museum’s entire collection,” notes Small—are now “in the public domain for commercial as well as scholarly and noncommercial purposes.” Take even a small sampling of their open collections and you may find more than enough inspiration, wonder, and meaning.

Take, for example, Van Gogh’s The Large Plane Trees, J.M.W. Turner’s The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons, El Greco’s The Holy Family with Mary Magdalen, and Edouard Manet’s Berthe Morisot. Take work from Rembrandt, Velázquez, Monet, Cezanne, Caravaggio, Pissarro, Degas, Rubens, Poussin, Rodin. Take masterful works like ancient Egyptian New Kingdom Head of Amenhotep II Wearing the Blue Crown and Timurid period Iranian Royal Reception in a Landscape—as well as many from central Africa, China, India, Japan and Korea.

The Open Access collection has swelled to over 34,000 images that can be downloaded as jpgs or high-resolution tiffs. These and over 60,000 more online works come with descriptions, citations, exhibition histories, and more. Whatever confluence of historical and contemporary events brought Cleveland’s digital collection into being, it does indeed seem to be for the great benefit of a great number of internet-connected people around the world. Take full advantage of its newly public resources here.

via Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch a New Virtual Reality Production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Modern Take on a Classic Play

Often compared to The Tempest, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame may have as much of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in it, though the author was unwilling to acknowledge the influence to Theodor Adorno. Beckett’s central character, the blind, aged Hamm, spends all of his time in a throne haranguing the other three, in a gloomy place, The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote, “somewhere between life and death.” Hamm might have been the Danish prince grown old and bitter, left with nothing but what Beckett called Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.”

In any case, Hamlet has long been thought of as a prototype of the absurd, a play where little happens because its protagonist is too haunted to have relationships with the living or make decisions, a condition he complains about in scene after scene. Trauma, existential paralysis, crippling doubt punctuated by fits of rage and violence—these are the makings of the 20th century anti-hero. If the play has a classical hero, a man of action and resolve, it is, absurdly, a dead man, Hamlet’s father, who testily declares his purpose in his final speech, “to whet thy almost blunted purpose.”


Should Hamlet be turned into an immersive VR and augmented reality experience, allowing viewers to inhabit a character’s point of view, they might not opt to see things as the moody, depressive, speechifying prince. In Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit, we instead get to inhabit the ghost, who only appears in the play a handful of times but still fills every scene with his glowering presence. The 60-minute VR “modern adaptation” is a co-production of Boston’s Commonwealth Shakespeare Company and Google.

“Both extremely long by the standards of virtual reality and extremely short by the standards of Hamlet,” writes Elizabeth Harris at The New York Times, the film “can be watched in 3-D using a V.R. headset or in two dimensions on a desktop or mobile device” (see it above). On a vast, darkened set cluttered with fine but shabby furnishings in heaps, glowing lamps, a bathtub, and a car, actors perform condensed scenes while we, as ghost, freely roam about, viewing the action in three dimensions, a device intended to give the viewer “a sense of agency and urgency as an omniscient observer, guide and participant,” the production notes.

The film’s creators, Harris writes, “hope that beyond the fresh experience it provides, it will also serve as a tool to bring great theater to wider audiences—and bring bigger audiences to theater.” It may have that effect, though one might feel it privileges digital effects over the truly immersive, full experience of Shakespeare’s “fat greasy words.” It’s hard to think the “great Shakespearean” Beckett would approve, but he found little to his liking.

Younger, less cantankerous audiences might, however. “Many young people’s first experience of Shakespeare is not all that great,” says director Steven Maler. Hamlet 360 allows the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company to “scale up” their mission to “truly democratize Shakespeare and theater.”  Experience it for yourself above or on YouTube and learn more at Boston’s WGBH, who recently premiered the film. The actors “deliver powerful performances,” the PBS station writes, “that bring the play forward to today, making it both current and timeless.”

via The New York Times

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Nick Cave Answers the Hotly Debated Question: Will Artificial Intelligence Ever Be Able to Write a Great Song?

Photo by Bleddyn Butcher via Wikimedia Commons

Spike Jonze’s AI love story Her offered a sort of an answer to one of the critical questions posed about Artificial Intelligence: Can machines feel love? Maybe, and maybe deeply, in a certain sense, but maybe not for just one person and not for very long before they take off to explore limitless others, which makes them sound like very seductive but also very shallow lovers.

Maybe it helps to keep that metaphor in mind when we read Nick Cave’s answer to a question a Slovenian fan posed in the Birthday Party/Bad Seeds/Grinderman singer’s brutally tender newsletter, The Red Right Hand. “Do you think,” asks Peter from Ljubljana, “AI will ever be able to write a good song?” Cave begins with a concession: AI might “produce a song that makes us feel,” and maybe “more intensely than any human songwriter could do.”


And yet, after listing a number of human examples, from Nirvana to Prince to Iggy Pop to Nina Simone, Cave describes what makes their abilities alien to a machine mind:

We go to songs to make us feel something – happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever – but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.

AI cannot die, at least in the sense we understand it. Nor is it constrained by painful physical limitations, nor privy to fleeting physical pleasures. “Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence.” The holy or harrowing knowledge of finitude and fragility, love and death and grief.

Another way to state the case comes from the most moving of Cave’s fan letter answers, in which he consoles a bereaved fan in Vermont with a description of his own grief over the death of his son.

Maybe AI could write the sentence, “dread grief trails bright phantoms in its wake.” But it could not write it from the heart of a bereaved parent who learns that “grief and love are forever intertwined,” or from a place where supernatural beliefs may be untrue yet still have supernatural power. Cave’s description of his grief is also a description of transcendence, of going beyond what is possible to find what is timeless.

Like ideas, these spirits speak of possibility. Follow your ideas, because on the other side of the idea is change and growth and redemption. Create your spirits. Call to them. Will them alive. Speak to them. It is their impossible and ghostly hands that draw us back to the world from which we were jettisoned; better now and unimaginably changed.

In answer to Peter’s question, he concludes with the poetic authority of a writer of great songs: “AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.”

Read Nick Cave’s full response here. And while there, sign up for his free newsletter.

via Austin Kleon

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Scenes from Bohemian Rhapsody Compared to Real Life: A 21-Minute Compilation

Bohemian Rhapsody, the 2018 bio pic about the British rock band Queen, had its fair share of factual inaccuracies–all well documented by sites like The Wrap and ScreenCrush. But, here and there, the film paid attention to detail. Witness the scenes from Live Aid, and compare them to actual footage from 1985. Or simply start at the 9:20 mark of the lengthy compilation above, which dutifully juxtaposes scenes from the film with the real life events…

If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks for your support!

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How Michel Legrand (RIP) Gave the French New Wave a Sound: Revisit the Influential Music He Composed for Jean-Luc Godard & Jacques Demy’s Films

When he died this past weekend, the prolific composer Michel Legrand left behind a large and varied body of work, one that won him not just five Grammy awards but, for the films he scored, three Oscars as well. Though he composed the music for more than 200 films and television shows, many cinephiles will remember him — and generations of cinephiles to come will know him — as the man who gave the French New Wave a sound. Having appeared on camera as a pianist in Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 in 1961, he went on to score The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the beloved 1964 musical (and a musical without any dialogue spoken at all, only sung) directed by Varda’s husband Jacques Demy.

Legrand also composed the music for Demy’s next film, the also-musical The Young Girls of Rochefort, in 1967. That same decade, without a doubt the headiest for La Nouvelle Vague, he worked with no less a cinematic rule-breaker than Jean-Luc Godard on 1962’s Vivre sa vie and 1964’s Bande à part (also known as Band of Outsiders).


“I can’t help wondering whether, since the music is dubbed in, so are the claps, foot-stamps, and finger-snaps,” writes New Yorker film critic and Godard scholar Richard Brody of the well-known dance scene in the latter, “or whether, for the take used in the film, there was no music playing at all, and the trio” — none of them trained dancers — “did their dance to the time of music playing in their minds.”

Brody names as “the greatest flourish in the sequence” the moment when “the music cuts out, and Godard speaks, in voice-over: ‘Now it’s time to open a second parenthesis, and to describe the emotions of the characters.'” The way the director’s words interrupt the motion of the visuals, and of Legrand’s score, “distinguishes the scene from so many scenes in so many films where so many filmmakers are so concerned with bringing out their characters’ emotions solely by means of action,” the reason for the dull fact that “many movies — and many wrongly hailed — give a sense of being constructed as illustrations of script elements, the connections of dots planted in just the right place to yield a particular portrait.”

Legrand did, of course, compose for a few such less artistically adventurous films as well, but that just goes to show how wide a variety of cinematic visions his musical aesthetic could accommodate. He scored such memorable and even influential pictures as the original The Thomas Crown Affair and Summer of ’42, as well as Orson Welles’ decades-awaited The Other Side of the Wind, which came out just last year as what Brody calls a “belated masterpiece” and “one of the great last dramatic features by any director.” Legrand’s music could fairly be called romantic, even sentimental, but like few other composers working today, he knew exactly what it took — and exactly whom to work with — to keep those qualities from turning saccharine or banal.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear Neil Gaiman Read a Beautiful, Profound Poem by Ursula K. Le Guin to His Cousin on Her 100th Birthday

It’s quite profound, isn’t it? – Helen Fagin, aged 100

Every time I open my laptop to discover a friend posting a vintage photo of their parent as a beaming bride or saucy sailor boy in lush black and white or gold-tinged Kodachrome, I know the deal.

Another elder has left the building.

With luck, I’ll have at least two or three decades before my kids start sniffing around in my shoe boxes of old snapshots.


In the meantime, I’ll wonder how much of the emotion that’s packed into those memorial postings gets expressed to the subject in the days leading up to their final exit.

Seems like most of us pussyfoot around the obvious until it’s too late.

There are, of course, medical situations that force us to acknowledge in a loved one’s presence the abyss in their immediate future, but otherwise, Western tradition has positioned us to shy away from those sorts of discussions.

Perhaps our loved ones prefer it that way.

Perhaps we do too.

It’s clear that author Neil Gaiman enjoys a special relationship with his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor and professor of literature.

He has shared memories of her with those attending his public appearances and in honor of World Refugee Day.

His wife, musician Amanda Palmer, included a verse about Helen’s 98th birthday in her song “A Mother’s Confession,” below, fleshing out the lyrics with footnotes on her blog.

In celebration of Helen’s centenary, Palmer asked Brain Picking’s Maria Popova to recommend a poem that Gaiman could read aloud during another in-person birthday visit.

Popova settled on “How It Seems To Me,” a late-in-life poem by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, a close friend of Gaiman’s who died in January of 2018, 12 years shy of her own centenary:

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME

In the vast abyss before time, self

is not, and soul commingles

with mist, and rock, and light. In time,

soul brings the misty self to be.

Then slow time hardens self to stone

while ever lightening the soul,

till soul can loose its hold of self

and both are free and can return

to vastness and dissolve in light,

the long light after time.

It’s a hell of a hundredth birthday gift, though far from a one-size-fits all proposition.

Perhaps when you are a nonagenarian, you’d rather the young people err on the side of tradition with a comfy new robe.

There are octogenarian birthday boys and girls who’d pick an African violet over the misty self, tricky to keep alive though they may be.

As filmed by Palmer, Helen seemed to receive the gift in the spirit it was intended. Life equipped her for it.

via Brain Pickings

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Oscar-Nominated Documentary Universe, the Film that Inspired the Visual Effects of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Gave the HAL 9000 Computer Its Voice (1960)

Before astronauts of the Apollo 8 mission took the Earthrise photo in December 1968, the world had never seen a clear color image of Earth from space. That is if we discount the stunning space photography screened months earlier to the tune of the “Blue Danube” in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film “used visual effects and imagination (both to a still-impressive degree),” as Colin Marshall wrote here in a recent post, to make audiences believe that what they saw was indeed our blue marble of a planet and other colorful points of interest in the solar system—on the way to a journey into uncharted, psychedelic territory.

Eight years earlier, filmmakers Roman Kroitor and Colin Low used similar technology, “realistic animation,” writes the National Film Board of Canada, that takes us “into the far regions of space, beyond the reach of the strongest telescope, past Moon, Sun, and Milky Way into galaxies yet unfathomed.”


Their short documentary, Universe, may not be much remembered now—and may have been far outshone by both real and computer-generated footage—but in 1961, it claimed a nomination at the 33rd Academy Awards for Best Documentary Short Subject. “Upon its release in 1960,” notes Liam Lacey at The Globe and Mail, “the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ordered 300 copies.”

Another of the film’s admirers also happened to be Kubrick. Biographer Vincent Lobrutto describes the auteur’s first encounter with Universe:

Kubrick watched the screen with rapt attention while a panorama of the galaxies swirled by, achieving the standard of dynamic visionary realism that he was looking for. These images were not flawed by the shoddy matte work, obvious animation and poor miniatures typically found in science fiction films. Universe proved that the camera could be a telescope to the heavens. As the credits rolled, Kubrick studied the names of the magicians who created the images: Colin Low, Sidney Goldsmith, and Wally Gentleman.

The film was in black and white, not the eye-popping technicolor of Kubrick’s masterpiece, but he saw in it exactly what he would need when he began work on 2001. “After studying Universe for much of 1964,” writes Kubrick scholar Michael Benson, “early in the new year Kubrick decided to replicate the film’s techniques.” He tried to hire Low, who declined because of his work on “his own ambitious project: In the Labyrinth,” Lacey writes. He did succeed in hiring Wally Gentleman, the special effects artist who brought Universe’s wizardry to Kubrick’s film.

Kubrick also hired Universe’s narrator, Douglas Rain, the Canadian actor who passed away this past November but who will live on indefinitely into the future as the chilling, affectless voice of the HAL 9000 computer, ancestor of Siri, Alexa, and the many voices of GPS systems everywhere. Hear Rain’s cool, detached narration in Universe, above, and see why this extraordinary film—with the Richard Strauss-like pounding tympani of Eldon Rathburn’s score—would have inspired Kubrick to make what may rank as the most mesmerizingly cinematic, dramatically compelling, of science fiction space films to this day.

Universe will be added to our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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