3. Trying to be an author is a very bad idea.
January 14, 2019 6:20 AM   Subscribe

A year after Ursula Le Guin's death, Alison Smith recalls escorting her during a university conference in 1987. When I met Le Guin, I was in outer space, hovering in that darkness. Cast out from my homeworld, I spent my days orbiting a new world, afraid to land.

He announced that he’d like to take Le Guin to lunch. ‘I’m not sure I can find the time,’ Le Guin demurred. ‘I’m sure we can work something out,’ he insisted. ‘You’ll have to ask Alison,’ she said. ‘She’s my shepherd. I’m just her little sheep, following where she leads. Baa! Baa!’

The first time I heard her utter these words I was heading back from the hors d’oeuvres table with a plate of fruit. The bleating was remarkable – loud and sharp, the practiced bleat of a person who knew how harsh real sheep can sound. The professor, flustered, stumbled back. Le Guin took that as her cue, grabbed my arm and said, ‘Let’s go.’

More about Alison Smith. Some previous LeGuin.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure (27 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
I miss Ursula Le Guin so much.

Write to your people, folks, before it is too late. Tell them what they mean to you.
posted by gauche at 7:14 AM on January 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Also this is a lovely essay and I thank you for posting it.
posted by gauche at 7:17 AM on January 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just arriving by train makes it feel like a Real LeGuin Story.
posted by selfnoise at 7:20 AM on January 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

It struck me that more than one of Le Guin's stories involves being a guest in a place that may honor you temporarily, even exhibit you, in the hopes of making good use of you later. She clearly had a feeling for the situation. Her kindness was more than civility; it was perceptive, seeing Smith as a person with interests and worries that she recognized. The bar for visiting authors is generally "don't be a drunken bastard," and it's only in recent years that people have shown interest in doing anything if they don't clear it. Le Guin wasn't being an author, and she didn't recommend it. She was being herself.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:31 AM on January 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

The bar for visiting authors is generally "don't be a drunken bastard"

Ask yourself, "Would James Dickey do this?" and if there is any doubt, step off
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on January 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah, she came from an academic background and family and there's a lot of well-earned contempt for academic politics etc here and there in her writing. And to be fair enthusiasm for academia as well. The Ekumen is basically a galaxy spanning University system.
posted by selfnoise at 7:34 AM on January 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh that's a very charming essay! Also nice that Rochester isn't dumped on as it is interesting city with a lot of history.
posted by Ashwagandha at 7:49 AM on January 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

My son just began Earthsea and we're reading it outloud. When he read the author I realized I had also just read the Ones who walk away Omelas in a writing class- and I as I had a high impression of her, reading her trot out the tired old stereotype about witches being less capable, less concerned for the true welfare of the people and merely scratching around the surface of deeper magic and purpose was very disappointing. I then felt disappointed in myself for being disappointed in her. I have been reading more about her journey, and in interviews she describes her early work and Earthsea as being from a time when fiction prioritized male heroes and that learning to write women at all, let alone as heroes or with noble virtue was a process she had to develop. Reading more about her in interviews, she also was a critique and vocally and openly angry and willing to share her disagreement. In hearing this I feel more comfortable with that critique in myself who saw flaw in the her treatment of witches as indeed a sign of the misogyny of the time she was writing, a disagreement she even shared with her own writing. I am left ruminating on the fact that we are judged enough as women, to judge ourselves for judging or seeing clearly that which is flawed in our society and in each other. To understand that which is "mean" or critical within us as information that we can learn from and use as knowledge. I like to hope she would have supported that.

Plus now I can share with my son that even the author would likely have written that differently and not to take it to heart as an assessment that the witch or female magical practitioner is any less capable of true honor or deeper magics than the male sorcerer or wizard.

Every interview I read from her leaves me more and more honored to know her even from the distance of time and place. As she mentions about Virginia Woolf in an interview, that she "turns to her for guidance"; Le Guin too is something I believe I will be looking to among the ancestors who I call to for wisdom and strength to challenge myself and others to build a better world.
posted by xarnop at 8:03 AM on January 14, 2019 [12 favorites]

If we're derailing this train in Rochester, it is a cool town with an amazing history of civil rights advocacy among other things. When I lived in upstate NY, two of the organizations I worked for were both headquartered in Rochester and I always enjoyed my trips to the home office.
posted by gauche at 8:03 AM on January 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Did anyone who has read Le Guin's work notice anything that struck you as false in the characterizations of it, in that account?
(Maybe it's just my internet and all else is well.)
posted by Baeria at 8:17 AM on January 14, 2019

posted by Gwynarra at 8:56 AM on January 14, 2019

xarnop, if you haven't read the rest of the Earthsea series yet, that should be a treat. The undervaluing of women's magic comes into the story eventually. (I must reread those, it's been a while. I've only reread the first one.)

This was a lovely essay. Thanks for posting, ALeaflikeStructure.
posted by cage and aquarium at 9:15 AM on January 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

That was a lovely read, made even better by my own memories of reading the Earthsea books in a WNY winter and living for visits to the Strasenburgh Planetarium.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:16 AM on January 14, 2019

xarnop, I have only read LeGuin, never studied her or spoken publicly about what her work means (or means to me) but my take on the Earthsea books is that the first three are a younger person's books, and that the last three are a mature person, writing at the height of her powers and perception. Many of the characterizations of women's work, women's magic, personhood, action, heroes, and what those things all mean, are effectively revisited and turned on their heads in the last three.

When I first read Tehanu (the first book of the last three) I was in my early 20s and I did not like it very much. Now I can't imagine Earthsea without it, just as I can't imagine a world run by a powerful cabal of self-selected, specially skilled men without the vast potential for abuse, inequality, and the enormous untapped potential of the ruled. Weird!

The first trilogy of those books enriched my childhood enormously. I think you and your son should keep reading!
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:43 AM on January 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

xarnop DO NOT STOP THERE! The Tombs of Atuan is so different, so quietly pretty and devastating. They just get better and better as everything grows. The issue you mention is addressed. Very. Worlds of Exile and Illusion is a great next stop.

LeGuin is an absolute treasure.

I want to neuralize myself just to read it all again for the first time. I've been saving No Time to Spare but saying that out loud makes me realize I definitely should just read it already. Are we allowed to curse on here? I f***********cking love her. (No past tense, she lives on d*mm*t!)
posted by emirenic at 11:01 AM on January 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh and also this article is lovely, thank you for posting, and thanks for making me tear up in the middle of an ER at work (I'm on a break, shush)
posted by emirenic at 11:12 AM on January 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

It reminded me so much of how dumbstruck I was the few times I met/corresponded with any literary heroes of mine. I could not begin to say what I wanted to, which I think was mostly I LOVE YOU THANK YOU CAN I JUST COME LIVE WITH YOU AND FOLLOW YOU AROUND, none of which was appropriate. So it was just inarticulate gushing on my part and polite warmth on theirs.
posted by emjaybee at 12:20 PM on January 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Back in the days when Seattle had 200+ bookstores (before the Great Ripoff), there was a hangar-sized booksale event down beside the Sound. The year I attended, Saint Ursula was there. She was every bit the charmer you'd expect. We need, oh, another thousand of those. May a hundred schools of Ursula contend.
posted by Twang at 12:48 PM on January 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

Last year I saw N.K. Jemisin do a reading of a short story she called her attempt at an Omelas (it's in her new short story collection). She spoke of Le Guin in hallowed tones. I've only read a smattering of her books, and really should fix that. The esteem she's held in by people whose opinions I value has grown at a rate similar to the quality of people whose opinions I value has.
posted by DigDoug at 12:54 PM on January 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.

This was very good to read while sitting by myself eating sushi, trying to reenvision my life as something created from choices I have made. Thanks for this.
posted by limeonaire at 4:16 PM on January 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

Le Guin herself had this to say "A couple of the Earthsea books have no
women in them at all or only marginal women figures. That's how hero stories
worked; they were about men. With the exception of just a few feminists like... I gradually realised that my own fiction was telling me that I could no
longer ignore the feminine. While I was writing The Eye of the Heron in
1977, the hero insisted on destroying himself before the middle of the book.
"Hey," I said, "you can't do that, you're the hero. Where's my book?" I
stopped writing. The book had a woman in it, but I didn't know how to write
about women. I blundered around awhile and then found some guidance in
feminist theory. I got excited when I discovered feminist literary criticism
was something I could read and actually enjoy. I read The Norton Book of
Literature by Women from cover to cover. It was a bible for me. It taught me
that I didn't have to write like an honorary man anymore, that I could write
like a woman and feel liberated in doing so."

I believe with my whole heart she already knew the power of women in Earthsea and I have no problem reading it with the subtext that she was working through the dominant archetype of male heroism and building something new along with a lot of women. We have to challenge this stuff in ourselves along with the world. And she didn't have the overflowing access to feminist theory and to new ideas that challenge the millenia of male superiority and heroics we have to work through in many cultures. We certainly are continuing to read it!

I loved the piece and totally cried reading it.
posted by xarnop at 4:38 PM on January 14, 2019 [5 favorites]

A wonderful essay! I don't cry easily, but this piece teared me up.
posted by Agave at 6:06 PM on January 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Thank you - brought a tear to this old man’s eye as well.

I somehow got City of Illusions (Ace cover: Was he a human meteor or a time-bomb from the stars?) mixed in with my hard SciFi in 1967 and was off and running.

And discovering fluency in French under duress is definitely a thing.
posted by skyscraper at 6:14 PM on January 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

For Le Guin lovers who may have missed it, a nice article on her poetry:
posted by domdib at 5:17 AM on January 15, 2019 [3 favorites]

Oh, my. LeGuin’s writing informed my youth and college years. I was working in a bookstore when Tehanu was released, and was just beginning to really deal with the trauma of my early life. That book showed me some hidden possibilities about my own survival. If I’d read nothing else by the woman, that Volume alone would have placed her on my top five influencers list.

Having said that, I’ll also be honest about how I’ve impaired my own possibilities, tearing myself down as a writer because I keep subconciously reaching for the impossible goal of measuring up to her.

Detour to just testify about how much I love Always Coming Home.

Thanks for posting, ALeaflikeStructure!
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 10:34 PM on January 15, 2019 [2 favorites]

Le Guin is my favorite and I am from Rochester and this has me weeping at my desk. Best thing I've read in a long time. THANK YOU!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 10:30 AM on January 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Astounded at a reminiscence involving Rochester that doesn't mention Wegmans.

Refreshing for that miniscule omission already.

This is much more so the Rochester as I first encountered it than the one of today. The loss of those bookstores still aches.

My own similar deification of her, of so many other published writers, as described might be what dulls the loss of Le Guin herself. Or maybe it's that I still have what I have only but always had of her, her writing.
posted by one weird trick at 3:15 PM on January 17, 2019

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