Last week, at age 88, beloved author Ursula K. Le Guin, died. It helps a little to know that she had as healthy a perspective on mortality as everything else:
You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose…That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes, it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? — The Farthest Shore
That book is fantasy, so maybe you’d think, “I don’t like that wizard, fairy, dragon stuff.” But, take care, because here’s what she said about the realm of imagination:
People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.
What did she mean?
Tip: Possibility is among our greatest creative gifts. Why reject it?
Her work gloriously intertwined myth, imagination, defiance, and poetry. You’d find a glimmer of revolution in everything she wrote or said. Here’s part of a speech at Bryn Mawr:
When women speak truly they speak subversively—they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–-to hear you erupting. You young Mount St Helenses who don’t know the power in you – I want to hear you.
Quite timely in January, 2018. But gender issues have filled her books from the beginning, particularly the most famous one: The Left Hand of Darkness. It creates a fantastical world rich with suspense and some of the loveliest language ever put together. The novel raises questions about identity, society, and culture. How do we resist? What does it mean to love? How do we know who we are?
She was a master of irony, as well. The Dispossessed is also more anthropological than supernatural. One of the worlds she creates prides itself on the wall that opens the book. What’s the big deal about a not particularly sturdy barrier? The people of Anarres don’t believe they’re hemmed in—they insist they’re protecting themselves from the outside. Voluntarily.
Le Guin’s talent combined keen understanding with enormous skill at expressing that understanding as no one else could. She was wonderfully modest and totally accessible to those who approached her at conferences. Not just a rare writer, but a rare human.
And because of that, a great teacher.
Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.…This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.
She disliked misconceptions about writing as much as she disliked injustice or greed. This award-winning author devoted her life to nurturing the human capacity to create a reality more credible and moral than the actual one, saying,
There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
At least we’ll always have hers.