The Journey: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

“When people say, Did you always want to be a writer?, I have to say no! I always was a writer.”

LeGuin

Ursula Le Guin. Photo by Marian Wood Kolisch

That quip from the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin headlines my “About the Author” page on this site. And perhaps it’s even true—I’ve certainly put my share of words on paper. But without Le Guin, who died today at age 88, I might not have been an author. I would have gotten lost before my journey ever began.

Like many a young storytellers, I pursued undergraduate studies in Creative Writing. Rather than fueling my interest, however, the program nearly smothered it. Syllabi mandated, in dire underlined fonts, that “NO SCIENCE FICTION OR FANTASY” stories would be permitted in workshops. (When I questioned this draconian imperative, professors claimed it was intended to help students learn fundamentals, as if solid craft were incompatible with genre fiction.) So I cranked out passionless short stories about unhappy teenagers (what other human drama can one accurately reference at age 19?), desperately trying to capture the ineffable qualities that the department considered “literary”. The science fiction star blazing in my mind since childhood dimmed like a red dwarf, its light sucked away into an academic black hole.

Then one day, staggering through the library stacks in search of inspiration, I came across a copy of Le Guin’s The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction.

“In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing course the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.”

I scribbled that particular passage down in a notebook, laughing aloud. It wasn’t just LeGuin’s incisive wit; it was the relieved laughter of someone who’d just found proof she wasn’t crazy. Just before the English Department compressed my hopes into a singularity, Le Guin ignited a Big Bang in my brain and reshaped my creative universe. I copied down pages of quotes and enshrined them in my dorm like magic spells on scrolls, protecting me from the dark forces in the ivory tower. I discovered her fiction and other essays, which contradicted everything school had tried to tell me about science fiction: it could be as complex, relevant, and lyrical as any of the canonized titles on the reading lists. I escaped with a summa cum laude diploma and the courage to stand by the genre I felt called to write.

Years later, after I became a published author, Le Guin’s brilliant commentaries on writing resonated on a whole new plane. I relished her editorials and trenchant observations on stories, society, and the shifting intersection of the two. I came to admire her not only as a writer, but as a thinker. Even her death inspired me. Just an hour before I learned of her death, I was lamenting to my Laddie about the challenges of marketing science fiction in the technology age. Slouching over to my computer, disinclined to write, I saw the news about Le Guin. Sadness and resolve rushed through my blood. The sci-fi universe just lost a luminary: how could I give up on a genre that, in the wake of her passing, needs the voices of female authors more than ever?

“Ultimately you write alone,” Le Guin states in Steering the Craft, her book on writing. But I, and countless other speculative fiction writers, were not alone. We had Le Guin. Although today she passed into a new dimension, for me she’ll always remain a bright constellation in the literary cosmos, a pole star to guide my journey as a writer. After all, as she wrote in The Left Hand of Darkness, “it is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

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