On January 23rd, I found out that one of my heroines died. At the age of 88, Ursula K. LeGuin passed from this mortal realm into whatever dreams come next. All of us are left behind to grieve and ponder the mark she left on our lives. Ursula K. LeGuin was a legend. I find myself thinking of her in terms of the line from Robert Frost’s poem “Take Something Like a Star” that, to paraphrase, she was an ever fixed point that asks of us a certain height because, even though she wrote diverse things across fiction, essay, poetry, and children’s literature, the moral tone of thoughtful curiosity and beautiful prose seemed constant to me. As a reader, her work demands a certain imaginative courage to leap into new ways of thinking and her elegant word craft makes the leap a joy.
Unlike many people, the first Ursula K. LeGuin book for me was a short story anthology called Changing Planes and it changed my life. I grabbed the book on impulse in a local bookshop in middle-of-nowhere Northern lower Michigan when I was home on college break because I had liked “The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas” in creative writing, I soon found myself in love with her perspective. Changing Planes was unlike any book of sci-fi I had read before. It was so scientific, so ethnographic, so purely imaginative, filled with wisdom and humor. Here was science fiction that did not rely on whizbang technology or ray gun fueled space opera but rather the sublime exercise of the if/then question: If humans did this, what then happens? It was a thrilling thought for a writer that here was science fiction (by a woman no less!) that I felt I could maybe in 10,000 hours write: something about people rather than things. I was inspired. I’ve been working on science fiction ever since in addition to my other fiction interests.
I soon found out that Changing Planes was a small star in the LeGuin firmament and was giddy at the thought of reading more of her celebrated work. I have generally read at least one LeGuin book a year ever since that day in the bookshop. Left Hand of Darkness, the Earthsea trilogy, and The Dispossessed are justly lauded; I cherished reading those books and look forward to re-reading them. I will say that there is a purity to this grief because LeGuin lived such a long, lauded life and left such a plethora of work for us to enjoy. Her voice will carry on as it should.
Maybe I’m selfish but I have a confession to make. When I first saw that she died, my immediate thought was “Oh no! I never sent her a thank you note!” and I felt guilt. I was raised to believe that no matter what, if someone really makes a difference in your life, you better find a way to tell them and that the best way was a handwritten thank you note. I am an avid writer of thank you notes and an inveterate procrastinator of writing thank you notes, particularly when they are for something really important. It is a vexing contradiction. To this day, I have never gotten up the nerve to thank an author who made a difference in my life. I have drafted letters in my journals but always quailed at the moment of truth. Fear and introvert-ness keep winning over fandom. In that moment of reading the fateful headline of LeGuin’s passing, I felt the double loss of her, with all her stories yet untold, and the missed chance to say the two words to her that every artist finds gratifying: thank you. I will always have her books. In fact, there are many books of hers I’ve never read that I’ve been saving for a future day’s enjoyment and years of pondering. I can hardly wait to share her work with children and students yet unknown but now, I will also always have that regret of never finding the nerve to thank her for being her and that is too bad. So today, I will share with you my unsent thank-you note below.
Dear Ms. Ursula K. LeGuin,
Thank you for being you. Your incredible books, essays, and poetry have changed my life. Your human focused science fiction with its fascinating if/then hypothetical structure thrills my imagination as both a scientist and a creative writer. I’ve been writing fiction, reading everything I can, and dreaming of making a difference since I was a little girl.
I confess that I did not encounter your work until I was in my early 20s but when I did, it had a profound impact on my artistic approach. Before I read your work, I felt daunted by sci-fi and fantasy. As much as they drew me and I struggled to write stories in those genres, I felt in the back of my mind that there wasn’t quite room for stories that didn’t necessarily rely on complicated mathematical physics or epic violence and war but rather operated on a more individual, human scale. Reading your work and learning about your life as a mother, a feminist, a poet, and an apologist for Sci-fi as literature, I felt like not only was the world of options infinitely wider than I had supposed but that I could find a place there too, if I persevered.
Thank you for blazing your path and lighting the way for the rest of us. You have left the world infinitely more beautiful than you found it and I look forward to reading your stories yet to come. Please also know that in a biology lab in the Midwest, your poetry hangs over my desk and it inspires me as I work on my day job experiments even as the experience of reading your fiction hovers in my mind while I write my own creative stories. Both pursuits require imagination and your work has been invaluable encouragement in each endeavor.
Sincerest thanks again,
Ellen A. Schneider, MS a.k.a. E.A. Lawrence
I also hereby will endeavor to make 2018 the year I send the other draft letters to those living authors who, like Ms. LeGuin, opened my mind, wrote on my heart, and have helped me find my voice as a writer. Every artist deserves a thank you.