I did not know Ursula K. Le Guin, but it feels like I did. Her writing has made a big impression on me. Her book about writing, Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, reminded me to choose my words carefully, and to honor rules of grammar so that I could decide when to break them. Her book of essays, The Wave in the Mind, inspired me to look deeper into things to find how even the mundane could be told in a beautiful way. And her fiction showed what magic can happen when a writer gives herself over to a story and lets it tell itself. So with the news that she passed away two days ago, it’s difficult to learn how to speak about her in the past tense.
I’m certainly not the only person who feels this way. Le Guin’s got a lot of fans; on her website, she asked people to please not send any gifts with their letters because she felt too guilty that she couldn’t send replies (though she tried to make exceptions for letters from small children, she said). The thing is, when you write to people as if you know them, they feel like they know you back. And Le Guin considered the bond between reader and writer sacred. She urged fiction writers to be honest, even making a case that creative non-fiction was manipulative and unfair to the reader; if the reader can’t trust the writer, then the story isn’t much better than a lie.
She took both the glamour and the looming intimidation out of being a writer. She made it clear that she was not a god, but just a person who sat down every day to write some more. That’s a very helpful thing for a fledgeling writer to hear: stop mucking around and just sit down and do it. And her attention to directness in writing, to getting the point across, was just the best. She urged writers to beware: no matter what lofty ideas you have about what fancy sentences should look like, please remember the poor reader. Any break in the flow, even for the sake of a word that is so beautiful that it must be marveled, does a disservice to the work.
She taught me to do my research, but to not be afraid to write about things I don’t know. On writing her first novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, she surprised people when she admitted that she’d never spent time on a boat herself. Instead, she studied Moby Dick and discovered how to describe life aboard a ship through language. All of this, as well as her commitment to finding the true voice of her characters and to maintaining consistent point-of-view in her stories—overlooked by even some bestselling authors, she says—is enormously useful advice to anyone trying to write fiction.
Looking back over her work, it can be intimidating to see how much material she produced in one lifetime. But, I remind myself and sigh with relief, she published her first novel in her thirties in 1968, and wrote the rest over the next fifty years. Of course, we should all be so lucky to live as long as she did, and to have as much to say. But it’s still encouraging; give yourself the time you need, and do the best job you can. Through marriage and children and grand-children and all, she managed–(It’s impossible to work two full-time jobs, she said, but two people can work three full-time jobs). Also, it should be noted for those who don’t know her name, Le Guin worked persistently for half a century in a business dominated by men. I would have loved to hear what kind of #metoo-hoops they tried to make her jump through. And still, she said “bah-humbug,” and kept writing. Well, I imagine that’s the kind of thing she would have said.
Yesterday, just after Le Guin joined the angels, dance lovers everywhere celebrated the choreographer George Balanchine’s birthday. Considering Le Guin’s admitted admiration for dancers, I’ll indulge in a story. On a morning in the summer of 2003, I stood at the barre in the dance studio at the Kennedy Center. Suzanne Farrell, known to many as Balanchine’s muse, brushed against my arm as she walked past, extending it farther out to the side from the elbow and wrist. “This is where he wants it,” she said softly, speaking of a man who had been gone for twenty years as though he stood right next to her. And though her wording was cryptic, I didn’t doubt that she felt his presence. We, those twenty students in white, worked all of those hours every day to learn how to channel his teachings too. (You can be any color when you wear white, Farrell would say, because your movement quality reflects the light, just like a prism.) We learned the rules so that we could make them our own. We felt the responsibility of this task, and proceeded with respect for our art’s past and our hope in its future. Even as teenagers, we believed in the value of our craft. For writers, the page is the prism, and Le Guin helped carve the glass.
Le Guin continues to whisper over my shoulder as I work, same as always. She’s not pesky; she just sends small reminders that what I have to say, and how I say it, matters. So I’ll choose my words carefully, and persist in my efforts to express them. I’ll continue to read her writing, along with the others who inspire me, as I work to develop my own voice. I’ll serve the reader, the most important person in the relationship. I’ll be honest instead of fancy. And I’ll disregard the nagging pressure that my work isn’t interesting enough, because the urge to do it well is the interesting part. This is how Le Guin wants it. She’s still teaching, and I’m still listening.
Visit Ursula K. Le Guin’s website for some very entertaining reading–not least of which: an old rejection letter to encourage discouraged writers everywhere. Enter Here
Read more Le Guin-inspired work from BERLIN ARTIFACT here: Showing the Rhythm