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.

 

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Empty Places, Part 2

In case you missed it, “Empty Places, Part 2” as performed by LeVar Burton launched on July 4. I use the term “performed” advisedly, because that’s a distinction I learned early on. Back when I was attending more sf/fantasy conventions, I was fortunate enough to attend a reading by Parke Godwin. I’d been to a few readings before that and I’d always enjoyed them, but this one was a revelation–Parke Godwin was an actor before he turned to writing, and he approached his readings the way an actor would approach a play–as a performance. The characters each had their own voices, the inflections were placed where he wanted them, the emphasis of one word over another precise and intentional. I was transfixed, and it was a lesson I always tried to bring to my own readings when it came time to do them. I never had the actor’s skillset to pull it off in the same way, but changing my approach improved my readings greatly.

LeVar Burton has those skills. Listening to him perform “Empty Places” Parts 1 and 2 was almost as if I was hearing the story for the first time, and I wrote the darn thing. I can’t recommend “LeVar Burton Reads” highly enough.

LeVar Burton Reads

Remembering Good Things

Front_cover3Now that the second file cabinet is a file cabinet and not just a pile of particle board, it was time to transfer the last of my paper files from the box they were living and traveling in to their new home. Which naturally involved going through them all during the transfer process. I’d already done one huge purge before we moved, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t make more space. After all, most files are electronic these days, even if paper is still best suited for some things, aside from the recycle bin. Sure enough, several times I ran across folders full of errata that had me scratching my head. “Why, in the name of all that’s holy, did I save that?”

Yet there were many more instances where the question didn’t even come up. Like back in the day when Parke Godwin sent me an example of a novel pitch he used when selling one of the wonderful Arthurian novels he did. As I’ve said before, what little I know about writing novel synopsis and pitching, I learned from him. Or copies of (rare) fan letters, including one for my first collection, The Ogre’s Wife from one of my favorite artists. It was a boost, at a time I really needed one. As with my good fortune in marrying First Reader, and the help and encouragement—and Dutch Uncle severity, when needed—I got from Pete Godwin, you can’t always depend on those things along the way. So when it happens, count yourself lucky, and don’t forget. Pass it on when you can, but above all, be aware.

We like to talk about writing as a solitary profession, and mostly it is. So often it’s just you, putting your butt in the chair and facing down the blank page/screen. Yet now and then along the way, alongside the confused/bad reviews and rejections, odds are you’re going to get a hand up. Sure, be proud of what you’ve accomplished, since you did almost all of it yourself. Just remember the “almost” part and don’t forget to be grateful.

We Could Be Heroes…But Probably Not

WRITING 02

Not everyone is entirely comfortable with the idea of heroes. They too often have feet of clay, or in these days of the media creature, turn out to be fabricated out of whole cloth, or at least a cheap polyester. Yet we all have them, and writers are no different. The difference is in what inspires us—the words on the page, not necessarily the people behind them. Writing heroes. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt when you discover that one of your heroes, known for his gentle and optimistic fiction, is a right wing fascist at heart or another with a unique and powerful voice is a virulent racist. Such things usually kill off normal heroes. As a hero, that is. Writer heroes usually survive, not always, but usually, since it is the words on the page that matter, not the imperfect, venal, or just plain unworthy person behind them, but more so because there’s a secret that the process of writing fiction eventually teaches.

You write better than you are.

I’ve touched on this before, but it’s especially relevant, I think, in the genre today. We all do it, if we’re any good at all. What comes out on the page is smarter, wiser, usually more together than, well, we are. I don’t know how it all works, I just know that it does. So I’m not usually so surprised when it turns out that the writer behind books and stories I love is a deeply flawed human being. Someone you might even cross the street to avoid if you saw them coming.  It happens. It doesn’t matter. Any decent work we produce is, at its core, a reflection of our better selves, maybe even who we’re trying to be, not necessarily who we are. Which is probably why I’ve never been driven to meet writers I admire. Most of the writers I call friends are ones I met even before I discovered their work, and got to know and like them as people first. That way generally works. Someone you only know from their work? Not so much.

Oh, sure, there are exceptions. There are even times when I regret, say, that I never got to meet Fritz Leiber, even though I did have the chance, once, at a World Fantasy Con way back in 1987, and I will always treasure my one and only meeting with Parke Godwin, who turned out to be as grand a human being in person as he was on the page. It’s great when that happens, but I don’t expect it. No one should.

I started this blog post with the idea of talking a little about one of my writing heroes, but I got pulled in another direction. It happens, so I’ll save that one for next time. I never met her, but then again, see above, I didn’t need to. The books and stories were all I did need, or had any right to expect.

So, if you ever want to meet me and manage to do so, I apologize in advance. That is all.

Review: The Last Rainbow by Parke Godwin

Continuing the purge of my old writing files after a hiatus to paint the master bath. Not only am I finding stories I never published (no surprise there, not every story is a winner), I’m finding stories and articles I’d forgotten I’d written. One of which was a fairly detailed review of Parke Godwin’s The Last Rainbow. I was reviewing for the long gone Fantasy Review at the time, and as I was going through my old file I found a letter from the editor telling me they already had a review of the book, so my review was never published and I’m including it here. There are a couple of spoilers, for those among you who believe that what happens in a book is what the book is really about, so fair warning.

The Last Rainbow. Originally published by Bantam Spectra Books,
1985.

Parke Godwin’s The Last Rainbow is subtitled “A Novel of Saint Patrick” and that’s certainly true—in the same sense that Firelord was about King Arthur and Beloved Exile, Guenivere. As in it’s true so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Novels about legendary figures are nothing new—the bare bones of fact and myth always beg for the flesh of the storyteller’s art, but to say that the vein has been mined before is to completely miss the point. What sets our best writers apart is not chosen genre, social consciousness, or even prose style. It is their ability to look at a subject, any subject, from their own unique perspective and let the rest of us see what they see. Communication is the heart and soul of any good story. Anything less is just ‘connect the dots’ and word games. T.H. White used “The Matter of Britain” in his The Once and Future King to reflect his own society, and if the images in his mirror are cloaked in fancy they’re never hidden. John Gardner took the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and turned it on its head, telling the story from the monster’s point of view in the masterful Grendel, and suddenly we’ll never again be quite so righteously complacent in the hero’s triumph. Agree or not, we will look again, and wonder.

All of which is a roundabout way to point out that Godwin works a kindred magic in The Last Rainbow. He takes the stone statue life of Saint Patrick, and with a superb artist’s eye, patiently chips away the gilt of time and dogma to reveal the living flesh beneath. Continue reading