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.



Story Time: Closing Time

Today’s Story Time is from the collection The Devil Has His Due, published in 2012. It’s a book I put together myself, and many of the stories were originals. There’s a reason for both. See, I’ve always enjoyed “deal with the devil” stories. They’re fun to write, but old-fashioned (read “cliche”) and not likely to find sympathetic editors in most conventional places these days whether the story is good or bad. But sometimes I wrote them anyway, just because. So I put them there. “Closing Time” is a bit of an exception. It is not a “DWTD” story. It’s a consequences story. The fact that it takes place in hell is incidental.

Standard Note: “Closing Time” will remain online until next Wednesday, March 21st, when it will be replaced by something else.

Telling the Legend

Back when I was in high school, in some antediluvian age now best forgotten, in Mississippi history class, we were told of the legend of “The Singing River,” the Pascagoula. In much later life it occurs to me that we learned a lot of legends in that class, most of them not labelled as such. Sorting out the truth became our own responsibility. Most of us failed. Some of us are still working on it.

In that spirit I took a look at one of the few legends labelled as such, the story of the Singing River. The basic legend was simply this—there was once a peaceful tribe that lived on the river of the same name, though that wasn’t its name at the time. That the Pascagoula people actually existed is not in doubt. The name was probably derived from the Choctaw words meaning “bread people.” Early explorers like d’Iberville met them and wrote about them. They were indeed peaceful and not a very large tribe, perhaps 240 people spread among three villages when the first settlers came.

The story goes like this: The Pascagoula were allied with the Biloxi (Taneks) tribe, but had a falling out and the Biloxi planned to attack. Knowing they could not win, and rather than be killed or enslaved, the Pascagoula as a group joined hands and marched into the river singing their death song, so the Pascagoula  River was known thereafter as “Singing River.” Rather poetic and all, as legends should be. There’s also another account, by the historian Charles Gayarre, that a completely different tribe worshiped a river goddess in the form of a mermaid, singing and playing strange instruments in her honor. When they were approached by early missionaries their goddess appeared and summoned them all to join her in the river rather than be converted, so they did, where they still sing in her honor.

Sounds made up, doesn’t it? Especially that last one. In the case of the Pascagoula River, there’s another problem—the river was known to sing long before the Pascagoula tribe disappeared. Also according to Gayarré, the governor of Louisiana, accompanied by members of the Pascagoula tribe, heard the sound. Whether the river actually sings or not depends on who you ask, but there are people who claim to have heard it even today, and a report at the time described it as a low hum in the note of F.

So what did happen to the Pascagoula people? It’s not hard to sort out. Pressure from white settlers pushed them west. Some regrouped in Texas for a while, others assimilated into larger tribes (like the Biloxi) which in turn were pushed out, many following (not by choice) the trail of tears to Oklahoma. The Choctaw and Chickasaw were able to maintain their identity despite all this, but some smaller tribes like the Pascagoula could not, and passed from history. Most didn’t even get a legend. They’re just gone, surviving only as descendants in other tribes, or place names, or the names of rivers, or not at all.

Maybe that’s why our history books only told the legend.


Story Time: Could Be Worse

This Wednesday’s Story Time is an original piece of flash fiction titled “Could Be Worse.” Whether it could or not is up for the reader to decide, but that’s always the case. It was written as a writer’s group exercise on the key word “Warning.”

Consider yourself.


Standard Note: “Could Be Worse” will stay online until next Wednesday, March 14th. After that…likely not.

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.