An Evening With Ms. Le Guin
I was the Freshman English Program secretary at the University of South Dakota when I first heard the name, “Ursula Le Guin.” My desk was directly across the hall from the faculty coffee room, and its impassioned literary, political, and cultural conversations often spilled into my office. That day, the topic was Science Fiction—was it a legitimate literary genre? This was back in 1975 or 1976, and the conversation had grown heated.
Although I didn’t read much science fiction myself, I admired Ray Bradbury, and threw his name into the conversation on the side of science fiction’s legitimacy.
At that point, the Freshman English Program Coordinator emerged from her adjoining office and instantly won the argument with just one literary reference: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. The professor loaned me her copy and after reading the book, I understood why one title by one author could cinch the science fiction argument.
I couldn’t have imagined then—an undergraduate English major, working full time to put her husband through grad school—that thirty years into the future I would spend evening in Ms. Le Guin’s company.
The phone had been ringing all morning. Students, colleagues, telephone marketers—on one of those rare days I’d set aside for my own writing. It was all I could do to string a pair of sentences together between phone calls.
Then the phone rang again.
“Hello,” I growled into the receiver, snarling out my name.
There was a long pause, then a tentative voice said, “This is Ursula Le Guin.”
It was the fall of 2001. I was the director of the Professional Writing Program at Washington State University in Vancouver and organized an annual winter Professional Writing Series every spring. A colleague, who had a personal connection to the Le Guins, had urged me several weeks before to invite Ms. Le Guin to campus. I couldn’t imagine that she would accept, but, to appease my colleague, I left a voice mail message with Ms. Le Guin, then forgot all about it.
Until that moment…. An incredibly awkward moment.
Another long pause ensued. Finally, I said, “Forgive me, Ms. Le Guin, for my tone of voice. I’ve had a frustrating writing day….”
I remember that she laughed, put me at ease, and then promptly accepted my invitation to speak at WSU. Over the next few weeks, we finalized plans for her visit to campus—a nighttime lecture to a general audience, followed by a book signing, and then a brief twenty-minute question-and-answer session with my senior creative writing students. We decided I would pick her up at her home in Portland and drive her across the Willamette and Columbia Rivers to campus. These arrangements fell into place easily.
Alas, the arrangements with Campus Security did not.
In those days, the campus was a vast series of outlying parking lots with a small cluster of buildings in the middle. My parking permit was restricted to a lot more than a quarter of a mile away from the auditorium. I asked Campus Security for a VIP curbside parking permit near the auditorium on the night of Ms. Le Guin’s lecture.
“Why can’t she just walk from the parking lot with you?” the security officer asked.
“She’s in her seventies,” I replied.
He shrugged. “Then drop her off out front and have her wait for you until you park your car.”
“In the cold and dark? It will probably be raining.”
He shrugged again.
“Ursula K. Le Guin. Left Hand of Darkness. Earthsea Trilogy. The Dispossessed. She’s an international literary celebrity.”
He remained unimpressed. “Have a student meet you at the curb and take her inside while you park your car.”
It was my turn to shrug. I decided I’d park in one of the VIP spots anyway and try to negotiate my way out of a parking fine later. Then I worried about the fickle WSU audience. What if no one showed up but my senior seminar students and the campus bookseller? It had happened before.
On that Thursday night in February 2002, I arrived shortly before dark at the Le Guins’ doorstep in northwest Portland. The house was a modest but handsome two-story with a view of Portland’s old industrial center and the Willamette River beyond. Charles Le Guin, her husband, greeted me at the front door. He took me into the living room, where Ms. Le Guin was waiting. We visited briefly, then she gathered up her things and followed me out to my Volvo.
On the twenty-five-minute drive to campus, she asked about my students and their creative work; briefed me on her husband’s acquaintance with my colleague at WSU; made small talk about Portland’s literary scene.
“You look very familiar,” she said.
We decided that we’d probably seen each other across a crowded theater at the annual Oregon Book Awards ceremony.
It was dark by the time we got to campus. I pulled into one of the VIP parking spaces, and guided her toward the auditorium. It was empty except for the campus bookseller, who had set up shop at the back.
“Don’t worry,” I told Ms. Le Guin (worrying all the while myself),“WSU audiences always arrive at the last minute.”
The auditorium filled.
Ms. Le Guin’s lecture was brilliant.
The bookseller sold lots of books and people lined up to have them signed. It was nine o’clock by the time the auditorium cleared. My students, about half a dozen of them, gathered onstage for their private Q & A. “You don’t have to do this,” I whispered to Ms. Le Guin. “It’s already been a very long evening.”
She shook me off, and sat down on the carpeted stage floor with my students, refusing the chair one of them offered.
My students asked question after question—about Ms. Le Guin’s experiences, about her work, about their own work—how to handle point-of-view, flashback, description, exposition at pivotal points in their work. Some of them were writing short stories, others were working on novels. When twenty minutes had passed, I signaled Ms. Le Guin that she could wrap things up.
But she kept going. For another twenty or thirty minutes. Enough time to exhaust all their questions. She couldn’t have been more generous—or more gracious, patient, and inspiring with her answers. She took my students and their work, their dreams and aspirations very seriously. She spoke to them as if they were her colleagues.
When news reached me of Ms. Le Guin’s death last week, memories of the evening she spent at WSU came flooding back. Yes, she was generous, gracious, patient, and inspiring. But her performance that night was also principled. Her answers upheld her commitment to artistic integrity and the work she produced across multiple genres and decades. She seemed at once approachable and legendary.
But memories aren’t always reliable, and so to celebrate her life and work, I’m going back to the beginning, to the first of Ms. Le Guin’s books I read over forty years ago in South Dakota, The Left Hand of Darkness, and its unforgettable opening line: “I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”
January 25, 2018