Meeting Ursula K. Le Guin

“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.

My favorite and one of UKLG's most well-known novels.

My favorite and one of UKLG’s most well-known novels.

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.

Some words of encouragement from UKLG.

Some words of encouragement from UKLG.

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.

About Nicole DeGennaro

Burgeoning writer, insatiable reader, and continuous dreamer.
This entry was posted in Authors I love/admire, Inspiration, Random, Random thoughts, Reading and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Meeting Ursula K. Le Guin

  1. Dave says:

    Despite all the anxiety, it sounds like a wonderful trip and great opportunity to meet an author you admire. The author I would love to meet, who’s had a huge impact on me as an aspiring author, would be Stephen King. It will never happen, but I’m very sure if it did I would act like a fool. The book I would take with me if I were to meet him would be my first edition copy of Carrie. That would be awesome.

    • Hey, never say never. 🙂 Carrie is such a great book; being able to get a first edition signed would be awesome! If I ever met Stephen King, I think I’d have to get The Stand signed. I like a lot of his work, but that’s the one I read over and over again.

  2. Isaac Yuen says:

    Thank you for sharing this excellent piece. I can totally identify with wanting to think through what I’m going to say when I meet someone I admire and totally flubbing it when it actually comes time to speaking haha. A little bit jealous of your experience meeting my absolute favourite author. Is that a first edition of LHOD? I’m working on a piece on my blog on the book and that is my absolute favourite cover.

    Also, Estraven is pretty awesome, up there with Shevek for me 🙂

    • It’s always great to meet and interact with another Le Guin fan, so thank you for taking the time to read and comment. 🙂 If I hadn’t finally admitted to myself that I would just need to write down what I wanted to say, I surely would have made a fool of myself. (Also, I would be jealous too if our roles were reversed, so I understand! If your situation ever allows you to go on a random trip, I highly recommend going to meet Le Guin! She still does a fair number of signings and talks in California, Oregon and Washington state.)

      I’m about 90% sure that is a first edition of LHOD. I bought it earlier this year specifically for the signing, although after a lot of research it’s still a little hard to know for certain because that publisher didn’t use number lines/printer’s keys back in 1969! But the hardcover wasn’t in print that long (relatively speaking) so at the least it’s a very early edition. I love the cover also; in the end having a hardcover copy of the book with that cover was more important to me than making sure it was a first edition. (And I have a paperback copy of LHOD that I read all the time.) I look forward to reading your post about the book!

      I think for a Le Guin fan it can be hard to pick a favorite character out of her work because they’re all so excellent and well-rounded (and I still have so much more of her work to read that I’m sure I don’t even know the half of it). But because LHOD is my favorite book and the first of hers I read, Estraven manages to eke out a slight lead over her other wonderful characters.

  3. Pingback: #DailyBookQuote 16Dec13 : Ursula K L Guin’s The Dispossessed | Whatever It's Worth...

  4. Nicole: I recall having the very same feelings this past October when I had the opportunity to meet Homer Hickam, an author who has had a great influence on me. Like you, I travelled a great distance for the sole purpose of shaking his hand, stammering a few poignant thoughts, and loving every minute of it! During the course of the weekend event, our paths crossed several times and I even managed to do a lot less stammering on each occasion. I came away with an enriched appreciation of Homer the author and Homer the person, hoping that he somehow would remember me among the many fans who were there. Regardless, it’s a good feeling to know that I actually made the trip and shook the “Rocket Boy’s” hand! Best wishes to you, and Merry Christmas! 🙂

    • That sounds like a great experience! It’s even better that you were able to talk to him multiple times (no matter how briefly). It’s such a wonderful thing, isn’t it, to meet someone you admire? On the days when I’m having trouble writing, I recall my encounter with Ursula K. Le Guin, and the happiness from that memory is usually enough to pull me out of any slump (maybe that sounds cheesy, but it’s true).

      Merry Christmas to you as well! Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment. 😀

      • Thank you, Nicole, for your kind comments. It’s always good to be able to think about those who inspire us, especially in times of not being as productive as we’d like–when the words just don’t want to flow! Nothing better to bust those slumps we have frequently. 🙂

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