I was thinking of Ursula Le Guin today.
I was driving back from town, listening to a truly lovely book (Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard) and thinking, wow, Eddie Izzard would make a really cool graduation speaker. And then I remembered that when I did graduate college many moons ago they asked who we would like for grad speakers, and I submitted the name of Ursula Le Guin. She has spoken at many graduations, and made many glorious speeches, and I would have loved the chance to see her in person in my lifetime. (google some)
But if I learned anything from her, it was that words have staying power. To truly tell the tale of my relationship with the work of Ursula Le Guin, I have to backtrack, and I think she would appreciate the roundabout road I took to her writing. When I was a senior in high school we had a remarkable teacher. She was a young woman, probably not actually that much older than we were, and she decided to teach a class in writing and theater. Our high school was shit, there’s really no other way to put it, but I and the others who attended my high school were blessed by some truly amazing people who attempted to make education beautiful and enriching for those of us who cared. Point being, in my senior year there was this class. For that class we had to each perform a monologue that the teacher had hand selected for us- we each had a completely different passage, from different authors, books, texts, what have you.
She handed us each our unique photocopied passage, and I will never forget walking down the hallway toward English class, reading my passage. It was from The Waves, by Virginia Woolf. My life literally changed in that moment. I had never read anything that touched me the way those words touched me that day. My entire concept of fiction, of writing, of being a woman, and an author, changed in that moment.
My cousin (sister at heart) actually introduced me to Ursula Le Guin maybe a year or two later. I first read The Dispossessed, a novel which I have since spent the rest of my life buying in used book stores and passing out to anyone who will take it. I’ll come back to that in a moment. But a few years after that moment in high school, I found myself working in Colorado for a summer before my junior year of college. I was sitting on a hill. I was in a bad situation, alone, sad, isolated, and I hid from it all by reading. And reading and reading. I don’t think I’ve ever read so much in my life since that summer. And what stuck with me was Dancing at the Edge of the World by Ursula Le Guin. I can, to this day, remember sitting on that hill, looking out over the mountains of Colorado, reading the essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” which would influence not only my senior thesis, but everything I would write thereafter.
“The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction” is an essay prompted by an essay written by Virginia Woolf. There are actually quite a few essays written by Ursula Le Guin on the subject of Virginia Woolf. I have read them all (I think). I wrote my senior thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf, always with the words of Ursula Le Guin in the back of my head. I’m rereading it now, having heard of her death, and realizing that I’ve based my life on these words. On many words, of course, of all the words I’ve read, but there are not many words I can say that I recall almost every day.
Le Guin loved words. I never met her, obviously, but I think it’s clear from her writing about writing that words meant so much to her. Words, especially in the form of literature, form our experiences. I sometimes wish I could forget that summer in Colorado, but I can’t because I can name to you every book I read. When I think back on my life, I realize that I formed the basis of my personal philosophy that summer. Virginia Woolf, Ursula Le Guin, Terry Pratchett, Sylvia Earle, Tom Robbins, even Plato- words leave an indelible print on our souls.
It’s strange, how people respond to the death of celebrities. In the past few years, I can say I’ve been touched by several deaths. Of course I’ve never met any of these people. I cried when Terry Pratchett passed, and when David Bowie went I definitely felt it deeply. I cried for days when Carrie Fisher died. And here I am again, having seen the loss of Ursula Le Guin on facebook, and wondering why I feel such a sense of loss for someone I never met. My connection to her was through her writing, and her talks that I’ve watched on youtube. She lived to a venerable age. Why am I so sad?
I think for those of us who read, we form who we are out of words. We base our lives on what we read, on the words that pass from the page into our recollections of how we experience the world. There were a lot of things going on that summer in Colorado, but it was the words I read that stayed with me. I can’t remember that time without remembering what I was reading. I based my first novel on an idea from The Dispossessed. Hell, The Dispossessed was where I got all my political and social theories that I stand by today. What we read defines us, forms us. And when we lose someone who wrote those words, I think it feels like we’re losing a little bit of ourselves. I couldn’t tell you if Ursula Le Guin even wrote anything in the past few years. But I do know that what she has written has never left me.
Ursula Le Guin was a woman in a chain of women who have taught us how to be women. She was a feminist, as was Virginia Woolf, and a woman who questioned what it means to be gendered, what it means to be a person, what writing means to the human experience. I wish I could pull the quote but I found (just now) that I’ve apparently lent out most of my copies of Ursula Le Guin books. There was a bit in the intro to The Dispossessed (I think) where she talks about why we write fiction. It’s to answer the question, “what if?” She tried to answer that question in her life. What if? What if we stand for what we believe in? What if we pose questions that make people uncomfortable, but push forward the way we think about our humanity? That is what I take away from her writing. That is why I feel the loss of her passing.
Basically, I am damn grateful for the writing of this amazing woman. Thank you for your words.
One of my favorite speeches.