The carrier bag theory of fiction

If you read one thing about writing this year, try this. It’s tiny – but transformative.

Ursula Le Guin’s own writing is beautiful and she writes about writing wisely, from Words are my Matter to Steering the Craft. But here she goes back to the first stories at the dawn of time and forward to the future of our planet(s). In a few pages.

Her main point is this: What if we stopped telling stories about heroes killing other living beings? Instead, we could tell stories to hold living beings. That’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.  Before we were ever hunters, we were gatherers. And while  gathering, you need “a leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a box a container. A recipient. The first cultural device was probably a recipient.”

Since so many have tired of hearing the “killer story” that cannot end well for any of us, Le Guin, in 1988, proposed telling a “life story” instead.

“A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.”

Writing like this, in a novel, or in science fiction, is “trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else… The story isn’t over. There are seeds to be gathered, and room in the bag for stars.”

Le Guin’s words dovetail with a lot of other people’s work I’ve been editing lately – from feminist vegan activism to culture, philosophy and utopias. In her introduction to this edition, Donna Haraway shares three bags she received on a research trip to Colombia. Using these bags, remembering who made them, commits her again to a shared struggle for “recomposing lives and making new sorts of kin in hard times”.

Of course, Le Guin got there much earlier. Reading this, it’s hard to bear that she won’t write anything new. But there’s so much to find in what she’s already written.

This delightful, diminutive book, with illustrations by Lee Bul, is published by Ignota. If you only read one thing about writing this year, read this! I, for one, will keep trying to make my writing more of a medicine bundle. And make sure there is room in it for stars.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

4 thoughts on “The carrier bag theory of fiction

  1. Carrier bag fiction is a lovely way of looking at it. In the science fiction genre, I’ve been mentally referring to it as “kitchen sink SF” – in other words, Becky Chambers writing about alien dietary habits and how a crew of disparate beings live together in a spaceship rather than focusing on space battles. Though there’s usually some larger scale political/explosion stuff going on in the background of her books, it’s really not very interesting to me!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I like her writing advice, but I bounced off her fiction as a child and wasn’t gripped by the first Earthsea book when I read it recently. Which other titles would you recommend I try?


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