Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Thoughts after the Ursula K. Le Guin reading

I thought I had written down more.

On Sunday night, I went to Powell's by myself for a reading, Q&A session, and signing with Ursula K. Le Guin. If you don't know who she is, hit Ctrl+T and read this review before resuming this post. Words to describe her, such as "brilliant writer of literary science fiction," seem trite or flat, especially after seeing the funny, down-to-earth person that she is.

Of her oeuvre, I am pitifully poorly-read. I have read none of her poetry and none of her new work aside from Tehanu and the Earthsea books it precedes (as well as the original trilogy.) It was late in 2012 upon reading The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel which takes place on a planet of genderless humans, that I began to see that her work is more than simply good science fiction or fantasy. It is literature. Science fiction and fantasy allow Le Guin and her readers to explore topics such as gender in ways which "realistic" fiction would not permit.

The opening pages of The Left Hand of Darkness are impressive, even though the skill with which a scene and its mood are depicted created such a heavy sense of isolation and discomfort that I found it difficult, for some time, to keep reading. The book takes place on a planet called Winter, which is, as the name suggests, cold. In the first scene, however, the narrator is uncomfortably hot, participating in a ritual that is foreign to him, surrounded by people of a culture he has difficulty understanding, and among whom he is very clearly an outcast. You may have noted my use of a specific gender pronoun; the narrator is a man, an ambassador from outside of the planet of Winter, and among these genderless people, he is something of a freak. The skillfully written details of the first scene create a sense of physical and emotional discomfort that the reader--or I at least--can himself or herself feel.

At the reading, I learned that Le Guin's use of the planet Winter as a setting may simply have come from a fascination with Antarctic exploration. I did not have the opportunity to ask if the sense of isolation it creates, in many places throughout the novel, is deliberate.

I bring up that first scene because it so impressed me that I often think about it, and thought about it during the reading, when a staff member read a particularly flattering excerpt from the above-linked review during his introduction of the event, and at other moments when it was slowly dawning on me that I wasn't just out at a store; I was in the same room as perhaps my favorite living author. I thought and think about this scene not due to a feeling of isolation, but in awe of its skillful construction.

On line for the book signing, some of the people around me were visibly nervous, turning red and sweating, some having to leave the line to sit down, and some chattering about how amazing it was to have the opportunity to speak, just for a moment, with the creator of such great literature. When it was my turn, I found myself saying nothing, not a compliment on her colorful scarf or impressively neat penmanship, just, "Thank you," as she signed each book.

I hope to attend another one of her events before I leave the Northwest.

At one point during the Q&A session, I found her words so helpful and inspiring I began to take notes. I believed that whatever I had written would spark some memory, so that I could type it all up in an email to a writer friend and to the readers of this blog. I believed her words on writing to be wise words that would help me even with my law school application essays! Sadly, my notes are pathetic.

process-waiting to be written. different with every book. "A poem can come from a stray word." [something illegible followed by what appears to be "underestimated."] Translation. put story away, let it sit, Go back and look at it. don't believe in writer's block.

Well! That certainly was helpful, wasn't it!?

Actually, the main thing I'd like to remember is this idea Le Guin brought up of pieces of writing "waiting to be written." She mentioned works that are forced, how this doesn't work. This is exactly how I feel about my drafts of my personal statement; however, they have to be written by a certain deadline, so I don't have much time to wait until it's ready to be written. Somewhere, a balance exists. I plan to keep these words in mind, and when I feel my writing becoming forced, I plan to walk away, write something else that is waiting to be written, asking to be written, before going back to look at my stunted personal statement draft. The key for me is to keep writing, to stop treating writing like an indulgence that is for me alone, a simple hobby, but as an exercise to assist me with writing the things I have to write, such as personal statements, essays, and important letters.

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