An afternoon with Ursula Le Guin

About a week or two ago a friend from critique group mentioned that Ursula Le Guin was coming to Bend for a brief class during “The Nature of Words”, a lit conference. Le Guin is 80 years old and doesn’t teach a lot, so I was definitely on board.

The topic of her talk primarily was why we write fiction and what we can learn from that. She started by pointing out how as children we all are story-tellers. Watch a kid at play, and you’ll see them building up narratives about what their dolls or spaceships are doing. We start out telling stories, but at some point most of us stop. Some even develop a distaste for fiction, perhaps reading only “real” books that talk about “real” things.

There was a lot of discussion which was awesome–I mean, here’s Ursula Le Guin, and she’s asking us what we think about her questions! She has a very soft-spoken style that made it a warm environment to talk about things. It wasn’t in a classroom either, but in a seating area in the community college library, which went even further to establishing a relaxed atmosphere.

The standout for me was during Q&A at the end. A guy, trying to get a reaction (not in a bad way–he admitted he was being a little “provocative”), said basically that the characters that stick with him all come from realistic rather than genre fiction. He asked what she thought about that. I sat up straighter, as the downplaying of sci-fi and fantasy as juvenile and purely escapist sometimes grates on me. What defense would Le Guin use, what counter-examples she would point to? Instead she said, “Well of course. Character is often the focus of realistic fiction. Fantasy does other things.” I have to admit, it was liberating to hear from someone whose work I regard so highly–Le Guin is among the most literary of fantasy authors, especially with her sophisticated use of language and depth of insight into characters. If her viewpoint is that fantasy doesn’t need to “compete” with literary fiction for legitimacy, I’m inclined to believe her.

It was also inspiring to hear her talk about how she writes and her love of it. Someone asked her about process, and she said basically–what process? I just shut the door and do it. It’s a good reminder that often there’s no magic involved; it’s mostly about showing up and doing it.

Overall it was a fantastic day. Amber and Cora came out with us and hung around in downtown Bend (which apparently has a great knitting shop). We had lunch at the Deschutes Brewery (beer taster!), and had many great conversations along the way.

Oh yeah, and I got my copy of Wizard of Earthsea signed too. Cool.