Ursula LeGuin died yesterday. “One of the literary greats,” says Margaret Attwood. The media today describes her as a colossus, a radical, a trail blazer. Her voice was heard well beyond the science fiction and fantasy genres; in 2014, she was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, cited for how over “more than 40 years, [she] has defied conventions of narrative, language, character, and genre, as well as transcended the boundaries between fantasy and realism, to forge new paths for literary fiction”
“A pioneering feminist, according to The Guardian, “Le Guin pushed at boundaries in both her writing and her campaigning. In a famous letter in 1987, she declined to write a blurb for an anthology containing no writing by women, saying that the tone of it “is so self-contentedly, exclusively male, like a club or a locker room”, ending: “Gentlemen, I just don’t belong here.”
I count myself blessed and honored to have been lucky enough to have met and work with Ursula LeGuin, as have many others because she was hugely generous with her time. I was in my forties and barely entertaining the idea of writing; she, only a few years older than I, had already published The Earthsea series, and just published The Left Hand of Darkness, moving from children’s literature, which was a women’s genre, to science fiction, which was not—but this book would open the genre to the women’s perspective and go a long way toward making her the literary giant that she became.
I’d made the huge decision of going to a week’s workshop—The Indiana University Writers Conference—and she was one of the leaders. I’d never thought of writing science fiction, but opted for her group just the same. For a week, we talked and listened (but mostly talked, because she was an avid listener) about the art of creating worlds. When the day’s meetings were over we adjourned to her suite and continued into the night. She had a vibrancy and humor that knew no bounds.
I’d been worried that I’d find my fellow attendees consumed by aliens and spacecraft, but need not have. Ursula was the daughter of an anthropologist—she created cultures, a love of mine. And the culture of Left Hand of Darkness is dominated by women. The story stems from character. I’d never before nor have since spent a week so consumed by the creative impulse, unlimited by gender or genre. I left that week overwhelmed and eager with a wholly new, and exciting, view of the size and scope of the creative undertaking. As internationally acclaimed fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay says, “We’re poorer for her loss, and richer for having had her presence.”
Except for one short story, I haven’t written science fiction, but that’s irrelevant to the effect of that week on becoming a writer. Her passing should make us all take a moment to honor the people who have inspired and shaped our journey as writers.