I love The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. It’s shocking, lurid, heart-breaking. After I came across it, I couldn’t read anything else for two days. I had to think about the story and its implications. Even more astonishing than the content though, is that it doesn’t follow the rules.
As far as I’m concerned there’s only one rule: write a good story. But because “good” is not quantifiable we have to have things like conflict, plot, tension, character development to at least make the thing readable if not good. They’re sort of like gimmicks or maybe props to shore up the flagging idea that we started with when we first had to the audacity to ask what if. Maybe they’re even cheating.
I wondered how Ursula Le Guin had the audacity to write The Ones that Walk Away from Omelas. More specifically I wondered how she wrote it, so I asked my writing teacher how such an astounding piece of fiction could exist when it doesn’t have a plot or dialogue or a conflict until the final paragraph. How can such a story make me cry at the end?
Know what he said? He said, and I quote, “trust your instincts.” Does that piss you off or what? I mean, thanks a lot. If I trusted my instincts I wouldn’t be here. Unfortunately like much that pisses one off, it’s true. It’s obvious Le Guin trusted her instincts with Omelas. Otherwise she wouldn’t have written a story where the first paragraph takes up a whole page and the second takes up two pages. There’s not a jot of tension until half way through the story. What did she have but instincts when she decided to put this down?
And how did this, this story that goes nowhere, this masterpiece, even get published? What were the editors thinking? Maybe the clue is that it was first published back in ’73 when everyone was busy protesting Viet Nam. Maybe masterpieces always get published when no one’s looking.
At any rate, from now on, my new year’s resolution is to trust my instincts. Reminds me of that old joke about the ma and pa birds sticking their heads between their legs and saying, “My instincts tell me to fly south.” And then the fledgling sticks its head between its legs and says, “My instincts too, but it doesn’t tell me anything.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to writing, I’m still a fledgling and my instincts too. No matter, I have the rules to fall back on. And for those who don’t know what the rules are, I’m including them below. This is a poem my friend Peter Dabbene published in his book, Optimism:
Notes for a Story Never Written, by Peter Dabbene
Talk about ________
Get into ________
Hint at ________, but don’t get too specific.
Do all these things, and wrap it up
In a distinctive style that’s enjoyable to read
Make it the right length, neither too long nor too
Be profound/Make people think
But be entertaining/Leave them wanting more
Write for your audience/Write for yourself
Mix up the vocabulary/Keep it simple, stupid
Write what you know/But don’t wallow in your past
Free your imagination/But ground it in reality
(Note: Work in sex, friendship, loyalty, work, love,
disappointment, regret, and joy)
Got all that?
Then what are you waiting for?
(Burn this message)
Thanks for listening!