My father and I call and text like typical 21st century family, but we also maintain written correspondence like 19th century intellectuals. (Occasionally we even write like them: planning a holiday visit might be phrased as “Cherished father, I propose myself the pleasure of waiting upon you and my mother this Michelmas…”). We’re both English majors who revel in the written word and its unique descriptive power.
It started when I went off to college and continued through the early stages of my career. Many of our emails then commiserated about the trials of office life. Since he retired a few years ago, his letters have become more relaxed and meditative. He captures the simple delight of a hot breakfast on a winter morning, or the wonder of watching a blue heron hunt in the cattails during a walk around the local lake.
When I read excerpts of the late Ursula Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, the keen observations reminded me of my father’s emails. So I bought him a copy as a birthday gift. He loved it, and lent it to me when he’d finished (that’s one reason I still favor physical books over electronic ones; they often prove a gift to more than one person). I’ve been a fan of Le Guin’s essays since her speculative fiction commentary The Language of the Night saved my soul in the undergraduate English department. This collection of her blog posts gave me a new appreciation for her not only as a writer, but as a perspicacious human being.
Several of the pieces, unsurprisingly, resonated with me as a writer. Her exploration of anger, particularly relatable for me as someone who’s struggled with an excess of the emotion her entire life, contains candid admissions about authorial jealousy:
“I’m jealous of other writers who soar to success on wings of praise. I’m contemptuously angry at them, at the people who praise them—if I don’t like their writing…If I like a writer’s writing, praise of that writer makes me happy.”– Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time To Spare
Seriously, did she hack my webcam and watch me fume over other authors’ successes? I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only writer to suffer this shameful reaction. Le Guin attributes it to fear and insecurity: if writing we dislike is the standard for greatness, then our own (presumably quite different) work will never make the cut. I now try to remind myself of this whenever I get a bitter stab of envy about my lack of literary fortune: it’s not them, it’s me. And ‘me’, unlike publishing trends, is something I can control.
I also took heart from Le Guin’s stance on swearing in fiction:
“I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can f*ing say anything except f*k, unless they say sh*t. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe f*ing except f*ing even when they’re f*ing f*ing. And sh*t is what they say when they’re f*ed…”– Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time To Spare
This hilariously parodied criticism validated my recent dialogue choices in my latest novel project. While my first two books limited cursing for the YA demographic, my latest project is aimed at adult audiences; furthermore, my heroine is a former sailor and a metal music aficionado. She’s a perfect storm (or, as my pun-minded Laddie quipped, “a per-f*ed storm”) of foul-mouthed archetypes. I could have indulged vulgar vocabulary and justified it as “authenticity”.
Yet I decided to minimize hard language simply because it bores me. The 1930s noir novels that inspired my interest in writing mysteries didn’t need f-bomb blitzkriegs to achieve grittiness; they use sharply portrayed underworlds and moral ambiguities to much greater effect. I aspired to do the same. (Plus I pay my proofreader by the word, so I’d rather not pad the count with arbitrary expletives.) If some readers deem this unrealistic, I can point them to Le Guin as master author who approved the approach.
As a writer of hard science fiction and an advocate of critical thinking, I particularly appreciated her remarks on the concept of “belief” versus facts, and the need to avoid the false binaries that powerful people with agendas create between the two:
“The idea that only belief sees the world as wonderful, and the ‘cold hard facts’ of science take all the color and wonder out of it, the idea that scientific understanding automatically threatens and weakens religious or spiritual insight, is just hokum.”– Ursula K. Le Guin, No Time To Spare
For me, glimpsing the secret mechanics of the universe only makes the results more awe-inspiring. The artistic variety of cloud formations comes from mere water vapor? Chemical shifts triggered by shortened sunlight cause autumn leaves to turn stunning ruby red? These delicate processes amaze me more as natural phenomena than mystical manifestation.
Other essays spoke to me on a simpler, human level. Her commentary on “the inner child” is a refreshing antidote to my contemporaries’ whining about the trials of “adulting” and the notion that adults are necessarily rigid, unimaginative drones with no remaining sense of wonder. Exultations of the everyday—such as her elegant dissertation on the art of consuming a three-minute egg—encouraged me to pay closer attention to the marvelous minutiae of daily life. And the ode to Christmas trees, delicately touched with pathos about the transient beauty of holidays and living things, brought tears to my eyes.
Turning her keen eye from fantastic worlds to the real one, Le Guin makes the simple sublime. An anthology of manifold delights, No Time To Spare makes a perfect holiday gift for someone who needs a time-out for fresh perspectives on life, even if that person is yourself.