Ursula K. Le Guin at Powells.

May 13, 2011 § 4 Comments

Ursula K. Le Guin, 1985. By Bettman/Corbis.

The questions are always the same. At every book reading I’ve ever been to, the demographic is divided into two groups: Readers and Writers. Those fans of the author’s work who are just happy to sit in their presence and love them from their uncomfortable seats. And, those fans of authors in general who would rather like to be at the lectern themselves someday and are there to glean and harvest every clue and secret as to how it’s done.

(For statistical accuracy, I should briefly mention the third class of Stragglers who range from umbrellaless people escaping a sudden downpour, to people who don’t want to go home for myriad reasons, to that guy with that girl who’s pretty sure he’ll get lucky if he can sit through this and not fall asleep – or off his uncomfortable chair.)

The answers are never the same – though most authors advise that if you want to be a writer then writing things down is a very good place to start. Apart from that, you can almost always expect variety and a unique answer to your question – unless you are a Straggler (like me) who wandered into a Tao Lin reading not quite expecting such a unique brand of… brevity… Apart from that most singular experience, almost all author Q&A sessions follow a pretty predictable pattern.

Now, when I say predictable, I don’t mean boring. I mean comforting. I tick the Reader box for sure but I’m also a Writer searching for secrets and if no-one else asks the “how did you become a writer? what’s your process?” question, then I most certainly will. It’s my favourite part of the show. It never gets boring. Though, at this point – as this is supposed to be a piece about Ursula K. Le Guin’s reading at Powells last night – I should probably say that some authors put on a better show than others. And Le Guin was the ringmaster, the clown and the magician – all in the guise of a small, white-haired, eighty-two year old lady.

I was under her spell from the beginning, so happy to be in her presence I forgot about my uncomfortable chair (indeed, I was happy to have one, the place was packed with people standing by the bookshelves and stairwells). The wannabe Writer in me normally takes verbatim notes (yeah, I’m that chick) but I didn’t care. I couldn’t stop looking at her, marveling at her wit and whip-sharpness, her quickness to laughter, her old-lady fingers on a lightning pulse.

I scribbled some quick thoughts when I got home then went to bed intending to write a post about the reading this morning. When I woke up, my first thought was to how lovely and special it was, how all book-readings and Q&A sessions are essentially the same. The same questions: “What’s the best book you’ve read lately? What’s your advice on self-publishing? What do you think of these new EBook things?”

When you’re in the presence of someone like Ursula Le Guin, though, it doesn’t feel like a typical anything. There’s something about her answers that aren’t bound up in the content of her words – but in their delivery, their underlying empathy and thoughtful consideration. She makes me happy that there are people like her, just out there in the world, existing. She doesn’t just write about the future and Utopian visions. She is the embodiment of a differently imagined world in slacks and a long greeny-grey cardigan.

Is it obvious I loved her?!

For those of you who weren’t there and would like to know the answers to some of those questions, this is what I harvested.

One of her favourite books is The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago. It’s not easy, she said. It has only a handful of paragraphs and periods but it’s very very good. She and her husband read aloud to each other and they’re currently reading Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi. She believes this Mark Twain person will go places, just watch.

It doesn’t matter what you write on. She moves from a notebook to a computer and back to a notebook over and again. When outdoors, a notebook definitely. There’s something of the sad animal in a computer in the light of day. If she had a stone and a harder stone she would scratch words into it. It doesn’t matter. Just write.

It doesn’t matter what you read on. She doesn’t own an ereader yet and she does, admittedly, enjoy a nicely designed page. But it doesn’t matter. Back to front, right to left, papyrus scrolls or kindles. Just read. People will always read. And the book as object will not disappear. The pencil is still here. Why should the book go away?

“It’s never too late” or “Better late than never” – something to that effect, in response to a sixty year old man asking for her opinion on becoming a writer at this ‘late’ stage. Her own mother was in her fifties when she began to write. And it may be an advantage, in fact, assuming you’ve been reading this whole time. The thing with younger readers is they haven’t had the chance to read very much and she suspects it’s very important to read if you are going to write.

The need for Utopian stories is as important now as much as in any time. That is, they’re always needed. Science-ficion and fantasy offer that vision in a way no other literature quite can. It’s so hard to imagine the world in any other way and science-fiction gives us that: what would the world be like if…?

She likes small presses infinitely more than money and power hungry corporations. Last night she read from – and I highly recommend  – ‘Staying Awake While We Read‘ which demolishes the pretensions of corporate publishing and talks about how books in particular defy the basic tenets of capitalism. Tremendous stuff!

We’re in a transition stage. Nobody quite knows how this digital, self-publishing age will pan out. It’s confusing right now. She’s not worried, it’ll all work out. The thing to remember is, this perception of the best-selling rock-star author is a myth. Very very very few people make a living from writing. You might have to teach or be a night watchman – whatever works for you.

But write. Always write. And if you aren’t in that demographic, then read, always read. And sometimes straggle in from somewhere (that’s my advice).

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§ 4 Responses to Ursula K. Le Guin at Powells.

  • Diane Prokop says:

    Very nice essay Deborah!

    • Oh, thank you Diane. Hope you had a nice anniversary. Have fun at Karl Marlantes tonight. I’m on dessert duty for a friend’s dinner so will be mostly be reading Cook’s Illustrated today!

  • Darlene Cohn says:

    This is wonderfully written! I so wish I could have been there, and I’ll keep an eye out for her if she comes closer to me. I too love hearing authors read and speak, and it’s a unique situation, because at author events you often get to sit in a smallish space, in a smallish group, just listening to someone read, and then you get to talk to them. Even big name authors do this. A friend of mine saw Joyce Carol Oates last month and raved about it. How often do we have that opportunity with musicians or sports figures or movie stars? With writers, we share our experiences; it’s part of the culture.

    And this: “If she had a stone and a harder stone she would scratch words into it. It doesn’t matter. Just write.” That’s just magnificent.

  • […] Ursula K. Le Guin: I sat near her once. Seven rows away from her near her. She bewitched me and I like being […]

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