A while back, my Twitter pal Damien G. Walter wrote a Guardian column on Ursula K. LeGuin’s upcoming short story collections. He takes a very specific perspective on LeGuin’s stories in context, situating LeGuin within the speculative literary canon as a disquieting moralist, a shit-disturber of the highest order who tricks the brain into thinking by first twisting the heart into feeling. I agree with that sentiment, but I don’t think that’s the whole of LeGuin’s genius or her technique. But I don’t think I could summarize that genius in one single blog post, either. More likely I’ll spend my entire career wrestling with it and re-examining it, because Ursula K. LeGuin is one of the biggest reasons I’m a writer, today.
I met Ms. LeGuin at an event in Seattle while I was working on a departmental honors thesis that cited The Left Hand of Darkness and some of her other work. My advisor Sean and I were in the basement of the Elliott Bay Book Company, the old location in Pioneer Square, the same bookstore where I’d go to sober up after First Thursday art walks. I ducked into the bathroom after we reached the reading space under the stairs. Then as now, the fine people at Elliott Bay left pencils and piece of chalk for writing on the walls. It was in this bathroom that I once wrote “Please God, don’t let me fuck this up,” in delicate pencil above a middle toilet. I was talking about the relationship that would become my marriage. It didn’t work. I should have used permanent marker.
I had just entered when Ms. LeGuin left a stall. I knew it was her immediately, not because I recognized her from photographs (I didn’t), but because she walked with the same gravitas and dignity as her prose. You know how in a Western the saloon door swings open and everyone looks up because a badass just walked in? She has that. She looks you in the eye and you do not, cannot, look away. It would be unnerving, if she were not such a kind person. She washed up, smiled at me, and left the room.
For her reading, she chose a piece from The Wave in the Mind, from whence this site derives its uncommonly long name. “The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary,” she read, and I was hooked. When I took my book up to be signed, and told her I was working on a thesis involving her work, she wrote her home address on a slip of paper and said: “Would you show it to me, when you’re done?”
At the time, I was in my senior year of university, and at loose ends. I was graduating with a stellar GPA, but had no idea what was supposed to happen next. I had no real idea what to do for a graduate program or project, or what skills an obsession with anime and science fiction might get me in the “real world.” I had a boyfriend across the country, and my most solid plan to was to move in with him, get some retail job, and figure things out.
That night, I decided to do that very thing and write a novel. And I stopped worrying. I had a plan. It was to be a writer. Moreover, I was going to be a science fiction writer. I was going to kick people out of their own heads. I was going to alienate them. I had spent the first twenty-two years of my life making people uncomfortable, and I saw no reason to stop. I would do with SF what I’d been trained to do by the Jesuits: make people think.
Every other choice I’ve made since has been in the pursuit of that plan. I have changed countries, relationships, and careers, but that one focus has never, ever shifted. And through those changes, LeGuin’s works — especially her non-fiction — have been with me. I have taken The Wave in the Mind, Steering the Craft, and Dancing on the Edge of the World with me everywhere I go. I have read them in dark times, and when I’m stuck, and when I feel like a failure. They have been there for me when I felt like I stood on the outside of everything, when I was the alienated one, when I was on the ice. I return to these words again and again, from a commencement address she gave at Mills in 1983, the year I was born:
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself – as I know you already have – in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
And in case you were wondering, yes: I sent her my thesis. And I received a lovely, encouraging letter back. I still have that, too. So often when we think about a writer’s legacy, we forget these small acts of courtesy and kindness. I just got back from the World Fantasy convention in
Toronto Richmond Hill, and I noticed these little graces all over again. They’re part of what makes conventions — and life in general — so enjoyable, but they’re easy to forget or dismiss. If you take anything from this post, take that. Take the knowledge that those tiny moments can have great ripples. They can change lives.
Thank you, Ms. LeGuin.