Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin

October 21, 1929 – January 22, 2018

I haven’t written anything about the passing of Ursula Le Guin before now because I couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together. I’m still not sure I’m ready but I’m going to try, despite the cat purring in my lap demanding all the attentions. Living creatures have their own priorities and in that sense I’m no different.

I never met her. Other people who knew her best will have the personal remembrances of the woman herself, I can only speak of her work and its effect on me. I’ve spoken at times about influences that made me whatever I am as a writer, though as I look back on it these influences were more about teaching me something I needed to know at the time I was ready to learn it. Parke Godwin? He taught me lessons about humanity. Fritz Leiber? That the limits of genre were illusory, and there was very little it could not do. Ursula Le Guin? She taught me what magic was and—just as important—what it wasn’t.

There are other lessons, of course. Some I still may not be ready for. Take her classic, The Word for World is Forest. I’m going to have to come back to that one, I hope when I’m a little stronger and wiser. At the time I needed it, however, there was The Earthsea Trilogy, which later became the Earthsea quintet with Tehanu and Tales of Earthsea. Yet in the beginning, there were three: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. They were first marketed as “young adult,” probably because Atheneum, the original publisher, didn’t know what else to do with them, and it was true as far as it went. However, I read them in college, when I really was a young adult, or maybe just a kid trying to figure out what “adult” as in “grown up” really meant. Ged, the young wizard in Earthsea, was trying to sort out the same thing, and in the course of the three—then four—books, he does, even though all the books, especially the last few, aren’t really about him. Which makes sense—a lot of growing up isn’t about you at all, but everyone around you and your relationship with them. Some things I can see now that I couldn’t then, but that’s all right. The lesson was waiting for me.

Then there was her classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, which made me and a lot of other people think about gender and what it does and doesn’t mean. Her early collection of stories, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, which remains one of my favorite books ever.

Now Ursula Le Guin the person is gone from the world, but Ursula Le Guin the writer remains, and there is, I realize, a lot of her work that I have yet to get to, and I hope I will.

I hope I’m ready.



Doing Nothing

There should have been a blog post up earlier, but that was out of the question. See, this is a nothing day. The only appropriate activity on a nothing day is, well, nothing. The mind spins in circles and goes nowhere. All your interests, passions, odd trains of thought, all derailed, and the only mental image available is one of those old fashioned tv test patterns. Do they still do those, by the way? Haven’t seen one lately, not that it’s important, but even on a nothing day, those random thoughts and images will appear.

See? Doing nothing is hard. We’re not designed for it. Active creatures are we, in a physical if not always imaginative sense. Doing nothing, and doing it well? That’s rare. I’ve never had the knack. Wasting time? Sure. Past and future master of the form, but that’s not the same thing. Wasting time is to have something to do and decide to do something else, something not considered “productive,” but that’s not necessarily so. I’ve done some of the very best writing I’ve ever done when I was “supposed” to be doing something else. From the perspective of anyone expecting what I was “supposed” to be doing to get done, it was a waste of time. Not from mine.

Neither do I see doing “nothing” as a problem. Sometimes the mind needs to spin. Sometimes nothing, as the commercial says, is exactly the right thing to do. I have trouble with that. I tend to pound my head, figuratively—usually—at the brick wall I imagine between myself and what I should be doing, when really what I should be doing is nothing, and until I do, that wall isn’t shifting an inch.

So I did nothing, various sorts, imperfectly, but with resigned competence.

And the wall came tumbling down.

Story Time: How Konti Scrounged the World

When I went looking for the text of this story I thought for a while it had gone missing. I mean, sure I could recover the story from its book appearance so it wasn’t really lost, but my original file was apparently gone. Then I found it in an old format under a name I wasn’t looking for, in a font that was just weird. It took some cleaning up to get here, but today’s Story Time is “How Konti Scrounged the World, from the February 2000 issue of Realms of Fantasy. I’m including the introduction, written after the fact as all these are, so take it for what it’s worth.

“This story may be unique among all the stories I’ve written to date. Not because of its subject matter, or tone, or approach, or any of the likely culprits. No, it has to do with the way I work, and when it comes to deciding what story to write, I’m not in charge. Stories come from anything and anywhere: bits of an overheard conversation, an old legend combined with a new understanding, an image, an emotion. That’s why “where do you get your ideas” is such a silly question to ask a writer. Everyone above the mental level of an eggplant has ideas all the time, but not all of those ideas are stories. The real trick to writing is being able to recognize a story when one comes calling.

Except, of course, for “How Konti Scrounged the World.” It didn’t come calling ‑‑ I went and got it. I’ve always had a fondness for Creation Myths, and the clever and fun ways our ancestors answered the “how did we get here?” question. I mean, really. Mud? Transformed ants? Leftovers from the carcass of a slaughtered giant? A god’s dream? Nifty stuff. Anyway, we’d just moved into a new house and I was feeling a bit detached and out of place. Perhaps to bring some order out of the chaos I was feeling, I thought it would be fun to write a Creation Myth and I sat down with the conscious intention of doing just that. All I can figure is that there must have been some subconscious prep work going on, because in that instant Konti and his little sack appeared and the story, as they say, practically wrote itself. Wish I could do that more often. However, it would be nice if I didn’t have to pack every time.”


As always, “How Konti Scrounged the World” will be online until next Wednesday, March 7, 2018. Then it won’t be.

How We Got Here

View of the Pinta and Nina Replicas, Hudson River 2017
Photo by Carol Parks

I blame the Matriarchy. Which is a silly way of saying it’s First Reader’s fault. She’s the one who bought me one of those DNA tests for Christmas. And yes, I know—they really can’t tell you a great deal of specifics, more in broad swaths, and to be fair this one didn’t say anything I either didn’t already know or strongly suspect, though I was open to surprises. There weren’t any, but that’s neither here nor there. The real trouble started because the test included a temporary membership in an online genealogy site.

Oh, dear.

One of my compulsions is research. It’s proved to be a very handy compulsion, especially in tackling projects like the Yamada saga, but unfocused it can be a time sink, and now I was staring right at one. Being a child of divorce was part of the problem, but even on my mother’s side the family memory didn’t go back much before the Depression. In short I grew up knowing almost nothing about the origins of either side of the family, and I admit to being curious. Anyway, combine opportunity with curiosity and there was no way I could resist.

So what did I learn? Bits of trivia of little interest to anyone else, really. Not that I’m not going to bore you with them.  I admit to being a little surprised—my father’s family emigrated much earlier than I’d supposed, mid 1600’s, and arrived just twenty years after Virginia was granted its royal charter. Right now I’m stuck at about 1595 on that side. My mother’s side, on the other hand, easily traces back to some guy named Ralph in the 14th century. The only surprise there was that they were of the knightly class and had a “seat” near London, which they later sold to the Tufnells. (Spinal Tap fans will appreciate the reference). They came over about the same time as my father’s family, or possibly a little earlier.

One thing both sides of the family had in common was just this—they were immigrants, arriving much to the annoyance of the people who were already here. And I don’t want to hear “legal vs illegal”–if you were able to (or forced to) come here, you did. That’s how it worked.

So maybe we should cut the new people a little slack? Just saying.


Incapussitated (n) The inability to do the thing because there’s a cat in your lap demanding all the attentions.

It’s not in the dictionary, but it should be.  Happens frequently here, but then there’s always an excuse not to do the thing, whatever it is.  Take this blog, for prime example. I didn’t write anything for twenty minutes because there was a cat on my lap. Now, technically I could have continued writing despite the constant pawing for attention, but I chose to respond to the demands of my fellow living creature. Who, it must be known, finally had enough and jumped down to go elsewhere. Incapussitated (alt. incapurritated) is always a temporary condition.

Blind, crippling self-doubt? Yeah, that one’s always around. Yes, of course it helps to know that you’ve done the thing before and very well and can surely do it again.

And yet….

It never goes away. Not completely. In some ways it gets worse. When you’re first trying to do the thing, you don’t know you can’t do it. You don’t know that you can. That uncertainty actually works in your favor as a partial antidote to crippling self-doubt because you don’t know, and so neither does crippling self-doubt, and maybe you’re both a bit curious. So why does it get worse after you’ve actually done the thing? (Pausing to note here the obvious point that “the thing” can be anything from writing a novel to learning to play a musical instrument. It doesn’t much matter what the thing is because there’s always a new thing, and crippling self-doubt trying to ruin it for you.) I think it’s easier to argue with yourself that a skill was lost rather than never being gained. Sure, you did it once—pure luck—but I bet you can’t do it again. Or, sure you’ve done it a dozen times—obviously you’re played out now, just repeating yourself, best quit while you’re ahead, et many a cetera.

If there’s a cure I don’t know what it is, except just to do the thing anyway, one battle at a time.

Allowing for incapussitation, of course