The Incomparable Flight of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin

January 29, 2018

       I had known the late Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) for about twenty years before I had the pleasure of visiting her at home. We met at an author’s event in Portland in the 1990s where my first book from a university press, Northwest Birds in Winter, sat in near-solitary splendor escorted by whatever oddments of checklists and ephemera I could scrape together to make myself look like a legitimate writer. I had two things going for me. The first was that my table was very near hers, which was good in itself because I wanted to meet her. I had enjoyed her books since I was a teenager. The second was that her table, stacked and piled with all manner of famous books, was the anchor of the event and drew lots of customers.

       Let’s call it gilt by association.

       We had a nice chat that day. She stopped by my table on her courteous tour of the works of other writers. That led to my discovery that she enjoyed birds, as I do, and also liked to visit the Malheur-Steens region as I had done for some thirty years. Over the years we chatted at these book-signing events (my pile spawned a little and I appeared more respectable as time went by), and once or twice we exchanged notes. On one occasion she sent me a couple of her poems, including one called “Up in a Cottonwood,” in which a Great Horned Owl wished we birders were slightly smaller so it could deal with us in appropriate fashion, leaving only pellets. That poem eventually appeared in High Desert Journal and also in her collection Incredible Good Fortune, both in 2006.

       In 2010 the owl poem also appeared in Out Here, a collection of essays and sketch art accompanied by large photos by Roger Dorband of the Malheur-Steens region. It was that collection that led to our recent meeting, as I had been assembling essays about that region for potential publication by Oregon State University Press. We were looking for art to use in and between the essays, so I sent Ursula a note requesting permission to reprint some of the sketches from Out Here. Within a few days she had sent me scans of the art and our project was underway. I spent the next few months herding writers as the collection came together, then went to see Ursula and pick up the original art to take to OSU.

       Great writers are not always significant personalities and sometimes when they are, one wishes that they were not. Think of the swagger-bull Ernest Hemingway whacking Max Eastman on the nose with a copy of Eastman’s Art and the Life of Action, or the imperious Susan Sontag keeping an audience waiting for two hours while she idled over her dinner and wine. Fortunately, Ursula’s warmly elfin physical presence was not mere image, it was actuality and continued until the day before her death, when we exchanged humorous e-mails about her cat, Pard. Her human grace, her inviting nature and her practical way of looking at the world were real. There was nothing of the ivory tower or La Rondinaia here: it’s impossible to imagine the late Gore Vidal inviting me, an obscure author of bird books, into his imperial kitchen to poke about in the tea collection, selecting ginger. With Ursula it seemed as natural as chatting about books or birds. After all, the kitchen has performed its natural functions for her family for fifty-eight years, why should I be any different?

       After I sat down with my tea it occurred to me that the entirety of her professional writing output, give or take a sabbatical or two with her husband, had originated in this house. This is the house—the literal and literary home—of the wizard Ged of Earthsea. It is the home of The Left Hand of Darkness, Orsinia, The Dispossessed, Always Coming Home and the rest of the vast creative reach that might as well be called U-Space, for it seems to expand every day and is larger on the inside than the outside. It is almost a free-standing law of physics, at least within the world of literature.

       It was also clearly a personal extending of arms, this outreach, this U-Space. It was not manufactured; it was created. The two are not the same any more than a catalog is a poem or the notes are the music. It is the effusion and infusion of a growing, expanding human personality converting the air it touches into another, finer substance, for a story by Ursula Le Guin is as much breathed as read. It is felt underfoot. Sometimes our bare toes feel ordinary Oregon grass. Sometimes they feel something very strange. Sometimes we wonder just what we are standing on—and did it move just then?

       There is always a place that has its own roots in her writing, and places have consequences. These must be dealt with in daily life as well as in cosmic metaphor and grand idea. Thus is the daughter of a cultural scientist infused with that unique combination of place-truth and social and physical invention that names a Le Guin book as hers. Tea is therefore found in the kitchen both in her home and in her created worlds. That respect for the true in the nature of things existed not just in the home but the mind of our greatest modern author of broad-spectrum fiction, someone whose name held a legitimate place on the list of writers mentioned for the Nobel Prize.

       Was Ursula a nice little old lady? Very much so, though displeased with the physical limits that came with aging (see her latest essay collection No Time to Spare for a very clear statement about this). If I may be permitted an ornithological image, there was much of the flycatcher about her. There was a sleek grace, a fundamental elegance of both form and character, a subtle palette of colors and a pleasing visage. If not exactly domestic, the image and reality were certainly neighborly. One can imagine a phoebe, a wood-pewee or something more exotic like a kingbird. Yet we must not forget the beak, that no-nonsense, rapid action get-it-done aspect of flycatchers, frequently known for its audible snap when an ill-favored insect gets too close in passing. I’m pleased to say that I was not snapped up during our visit—perhaps my aspect was too mundane to be worth the energy—yet the beak was clearly there and had lost little edge over the years. Woe unto any passing writer or reader who thought that flycatchers only make ginger tea.

       There was a perceptible film of nostalgia over our meeting. Ursula mentioned that she had to cancel last year’s reservations in the Diamond area of Harney County, the desert retreat she has made for decades and which inspired some of the images in The Tombs of Atuan. Likewise she said no to another year signing books at the Wild Arts festival where we first met. She had even concluded that visits to the family’s beach house in Cannon Beach were no longer possible. At 88, with her husband Charles an active 90, the physical self was only capable of so much. There was acceptance but also awareness of loss.

       Her energy was flagging at 88, but where had it come from to start with? Where does a writer’s creative force and idea kernel originate, and just as important, where does the drive to write come from? Execution of a written work is possible, at least in the technical sense, to anyone with the ability to manage language, but in worthwhile writing there must be an idea and there must be the capacity, energy and on-call ruthlessness to ride the idea all the way to its destination. That ruthlessness must be applied not only to one’s schedule but to one’s work: genius does not shine from every paragraph that drips from our pens.

       From my own experience I know that there is an element of sheer physical energy involved, but that energy wave, however it is fueled, has to buoy up a Something, an idea that has enough germinal material inside it to make the continued application of personal energy seem worthwhile. This is the unwritten secret of the romantic so-called ‘writing life,’ the elephant that never leaves the room, the same underlying principle that Andrew Lloyd Webber noted, in the mouth of Juan Perón in Evita, the fact that as a leader it is “you that you are following.”

For a writer is the leader of an army of one. You are the general of your ideas, and the ordinary private of their execution. The process of publishing becomes easier with success. A writer like Ursula had a name that was alone enough to make the most jaded slush-reader sit up straight in her chair and pay attention. And of course she had an agent. Yet the process of creative writing is the same. You have to have the ideas and you have to write them, which takes time and involves inevitable diversions, breaks, disruptions, revisions and, for most writers, periods of doubt, weariness and oh-why-bother.

       André Gide famously commented to a young wannabe author that if he was capable of not writing, he should follow that impulse. The ‘writing life’ has a way of screening out those who cannot produce the work. Some of what is screened out may be of potential good quality, but the gap between potential and actuality is a chasm that has eaten countless writers who do not become authors. It is the canyon of silence, a part of literary natural selection.

       Sometimes the net result of dragging the authorial cannon up the endless mountain is curiously unsuccessful, at least in a qualitative sense. I have read books by novelists who are considered successful but whose work is profoundly mechanical in nature and could have been produced by a reasonably alert and well-informed microwave oven. This writing is manufactured, not created.

       These problems are absent in Le Guin’s work. There are several reasons for this. First, she really did have lots of ideas. She also had a mind of great suppleness and vision. She simply saw things that others did not and made connections that others don’t. There is no replacement for her vision now that it has run its course. She also lacked fear, in the expressive sense—an enormous advantage. She pursued what she thought interesting to see what happened. Early in her career this originality caused some difficulties in the minds of potential publishers who could not instantly classify her work. She eventually slotted into the world of science fiction and fantasy, and this, over time, proved enough of an operational base to allow her mind to flow here and there as it wished.

       I have no idea which of her works has been the most successful, using a sales model as a determinant of success, but then I am not sure she herself would start with a sales model or a revenue model. I earn money from writing every year, so I pay attention to sales and revenue, although my numbers can be absurdly small. I suspect that Ursula used an inspiration model, evaluating the effectiveness of her own work with regard to how it inspired others, though I never asked her. How have her works inspired other people to think in new ways, see in new ways and act in new ways? How did they re-spark her own mind?

       The late poet Reginald Shepherd said that he wrote in order to live forever, which I suspect is a fairly common idea—I sometimes think that way about my own work. Yet to live forever as an individual ghost-ego in the world is essentially a goal of static sameness: what I write is writ, and despite the modern pleasures of correctable print-on-demand books, what I have writ is pretty much fixed in content. And it is, for most writers, ultimately about the I: me.

       What Ursula did was different. She wrote to share the necessity of seeing things anew and the importance of not getting locked in to specific ways of thinking. Her legacy, that which will live as long as people communicate, is that actual thinking is meaningful and that preconceived ideas are often rooted in nothing more substantial than the false islands of grass that floated on Malheur Lake before the carp came. It is a legacy worthy of the name.

       Samuel R. Delany wrote in one of his journals that standard fiction is a mirror while science fiction is a door. U-Space is open to us all. We just have to fly there.

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© 2017 by Alan L. Contreras

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Crater Lake photo courtesy of Marc Adamus

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