“There are these moments in most writers’ careers when you discover that someone else has actually written down some of these things that have been going on in your own head; you realize that this isn’t just a private experience.” —Ursula K. Le Guin, interview in Missouri Review 7.2 (1984).
I had an ulterior motive for my previous post about meeting people I admire. About six months ago, I started planning a trip to meet the author who is at the top of my influences/admiration list: Ursula K. Le Guin.
I flew to Portland, Oregon, on November 22 for a whirlwind weekend centered around attending a book signing by Le Guin on the 24th. As my departure approached, my anxiety about meeting her face to face increased, which led me to evaluate why I get so nervous in those situations.
Of course, introspection doesn’t always reveal solutions, and even after my previous post about why I think I feel anxious when meeting people I admire, I still couldn’t settle on what I would say to Le Guin when I met her. The night before my flight, I grabbed a book off my bookshelf to read on the plane, and that fairly random choice ended up being the exact book I needed for that trip.
The book I chose was Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin. The collection of interviews not only offers some insight into her stories and life but also illuminates how her opinions on certain topics have evolved over time (the interviews span 1980 to 2006), and in many ways the book helped calm my nerves. While I waited at the airport for my flight to Portland (or possibly while I was on the plane), I read the quote that opens this blog post, and everything fell into place.
I knew I had to say something similar to Le Guin because she is that author to me. She is the writer whose work explores the “what ifs” that I often contemplate in my own head. It is her writing that made me realize I wasn’t the only one thinking about these things, that revealed new perspectives when considering those questions. She has been not only a teacher for me when it comes to writing but also a guide as I have explored the landscape of my imagination.
After realizing this, I knew I couldn’t risk blowing my one meeting with Le Guin by getting tongue tied or claming up. So I decided to write down what I wanted to say.
It seems obvious, I know. Writing helps me organize my thoughts, as it does for many people. I can cross things out or rearrange them and nobody has to see the original version. My plan was to memorize the essential parts of what I wrote down because I didn’t want to stand in front of Le Guin and read off a sheet (or two or three) of paper. I wanted to make eye contact—one of the advantages of a face-to-face meeting; otherwise I could have just mailed her a letter.
So in the brief time I had before the signing, and in between sightseeing excursions, I revised my essay a few times until I knew I couldn’t shorten it any further without losing some of the essential elements. Then I set to the memorization. Whenever I questioned myself or tried to convince myself that I didn’t have to say anything because she’s likely heard it all before over the course of her illustrious career, I reminded myself that it’s important to thank your guides in person when you can.
[Responding to the idea that people may be afraid to contact her] “Some of them actually are afraid to. And I understand it. I feel that myself towards people I respect. …the fear of rejection by somebody you respect is very painful.” —Ursula K. Le Guin, interview in Para-Doxa: Studies in World Literary Genres 1.1 (1995).
The morning of the signing I woke up far earlier than I needed to, and during second breakfast I read the above quote in Conversations, which reinforced my belief that everyone experiences some level of this nervousness. With that in mind, I distilled my essay down to a list of bullet points for reference in case my memory failed me, and that was what I took with me to the signing.
Of course my memory failed me. As I stood on the short line (I couldn’t believe it was so short; as far as I’m concerned it should always snake around the block for her), my nervousness wiped all that I had memorized from my brain. So as my turn approached, I took the list of bullet points out, knowing I would regret it if I skipped something crucial.
I won’t go through everything I said to her because some of it was personal and some of it won’t mean much to anyone else. But I did paraphrase the Missouri Review quote and tell her that is what her writing is for me; I thanked her for being an “unflinching feminist”, to which her reply was that there does seem to be a lot of flinching going on recently; and I told her I was grateful that she was so prolific because it means I have years of wonderful reading ahead. Then I asked her to sign my hardcover copy of The Left Hand of Darkness (which I had bought months earlier specifically for the signing) and told her that while I know the book isn’t perfect, it was my gateway to the rest of her work, and Estraven is one of my favorite literary characters—and she said “Mine too”. She thanked me for traveling so far to meet her. After getting a picture with her, I rushed off and wandered around in a bit of a daze. Later, I went back to her table when I was preparing to leave the festival. There was no line, and I felt much calmer, so I just thanked her again. She shook my hand and wished me good travels.
It might not seem like much typed out, but it meant a great deal to me—especially what she wrote in my book. Equal parts wit and encouragement, and proof enough that she was listening while I nervously tried to convey the depth of my admiration.
I had to do a lot of preparation, but it was worth it in the end even if it felt ridiculous at the time. If you have the opportunity or the means to meet someone you admire, seize that chance—more importantly, do what you must in order to say what you need to say to that person. It might be the only opportunity you’ll get.