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.


On Efficiency

For those of us by our natures who are forced to figure things out as we go, there’s a part of the creation timeline I’ve come to refer to as the “Fits & Starts” stage, which is rather where I am now. In a short story it usually doesn’t last very long if the story is going to work. A book, if you’ll pardon the expression, is another story. It can last for chapters at at  time and often does. If it lasts more than that, well, that’s a problem.

Fortunately for me, my characters usually sort that stuff out themselves, once I’ve got a handle on them and what they’re up to. Yet sometimes it seems that this “sorting out” happens when they insist on talking to each other for extended periods. Sometimes these are the sorts of conversations that the eventual readers needs to be in on from the start. Sometimes not.  Or as one of Ursula Le Guin’s early editors of what became the Earthsea Trilogy is alleged to have said–“Ged is talking too much!” With all due respect to everyone involved,  I think I know why.

I definitely  know the time will come when, after the sorting out period and rough draft period, there will eventually come the rewrite period, and at least some of these fascinating (to me) conversations will have to end up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. Pity? No. Pitiless. When something once served the book but no longer does, “When it’s a drag on the flow, it has to go.” It’s our job to write it, and our job to cut it if and when the time comes when sections of the prose no longer serve the story. Chunks of any given book are completely necessary for us to write, and absolutely useless, nay counterproductive, for the reader to slog through. It’s sort of a paradox, but there are a lot of them in this process, so you just go with it.

As others have rightly observed, writing and then disposing of these chunks of superfluous wordage is not a very efficient way to go about the job of writing a book, and I heartily agree. I might find myself in envy of those people who can work all this out in a detailed outline before they even start. Then again, writing a hundred page outline of a three hundred page book doesn’t strike me as all that efficient either. Maybe writing is not supposed to be “efficient.” Maybe it’s just supposed to be done, and any way you can do it is the absolute best way there is.


“Is This the Five Minute Argument or the Full Half-hour?”

The Ghost WarThe subject came up for me because I got briefly involved in an online discussion, which on the surface was about Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. The instigator of the discussion readily admitted that the books were classics, but by implication wondered why they were classics. After all, there was very little overt action, the pacing was slow, and thus the books weren’t that entertaining. My first reaction was something along the lines of WTF??? After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I had to think about that for a bit.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of reading protocols. I’m not qualified, for one thing. However, there is something I have known for a long time, and the ancients knew long before I did—and so I shouldn’t have been at all surprised by that reader’s reaction to a series I did and still do think is brilliant. The proper response is not “What the hell is wrong with you?” The proper response is to shrug and remember “De gustibus non est disputandum.” More or less, “You can’t argue matters of taste.”

Of course, people can and do argue matters of taste. All the time. People like to argue, and for people who do like to argue, matters of taste are simply perfect. For as humanity has understood for a long time and the Romans expressed so succinctly, it’s a completely and utterly pointless exercise. There’s no logic to express, no preponderance of evidence to introduce, no real case to be made. Every such argument starts with one basic position by both (or all) disputants, and that is “Why don’t you like what I like?” The simple and obvious answer does nothing to derail the argument. It’s pointless, but only if you don’t realize that the argument itself is the point. Nothing is settled and no one is persuaded. Arguing in its purest and most honest form.

The thing is, we never read the same books, see the same plays, hear the same music, because we can’t. In order for me to do that, I would have to be you. And frankly, I have more than enough on my plate just trying to be me. My perspective and experience are not yours, and vice versa. If someone says the Earthsea books are slow paced, I would say they are thoughtful. If someone says that there’s no overt action, I would say that most of the conflict is internal but expressed beautifully in the text. If someone says that nothing really happens I’d say nothing but an entire world changing in front of our eyes. And whoever that theoretical someone was, we’d both be right.

Sometimes I think the real miracle is that we ever agree on anything.