A few years back, I was at Potlatch in the San Francisco Bay Area, and so was Ursula.
I saw her as soon as I arrived. She was crossing through the lobby, followed at a discreet distance by a cameraman. One of my goals for the weekend was to talk to her, but I stayed well back just then, because the last thing I wanted was for my stammering fangirl moment to be caught on camera. So I went into the dealers’ room.
A few minutes later, in walks Ursula — still followed by the cameraman. She begins browsing the wares, and I watch with some entertainment as everybody (myself included) eels out of the way, either reluctant to interrupt whatever this camera business was, or just shy about being in the frame. (Avoiding it is difficult: the dealers’ room is about the size of a parking spot.)
Eventually I notice that the cameraman has put his camera down. I think maybe he was fiddling with it; I don’t know. All I know is that I decided I might as well go ahead and seize the moment, because Ursula was clearly not in the middle of anything just then, and I didn’t know if I would get another chance. I screwed my courage to the sticking-point and walked up. I introduced myself, mentioned that I was a writer (still a fairly new one, at that point), and told her that she — or, to be more precise, her book The Language of the Night — was the reason I had gone to graduate school.
“Oh,” she said. “Should I apologize?”
I assured her that she shouldn’t. I had left graduate school a couple of years before that, but not because I didn’t enjoy it; I left because by then I was selling novels, and I didn’t want to take time and energy away from those to write a dissertation.
(The cameraman, by the way, may have been trying to bait people into not being so shy. Partway through this conversation, I realized I was, in fact, being caught on film. Somewhere out there, I fear there may be video of me fumbling my way through this conversation.)
How could I not enjoy graduate school? I was studying science fiction and fantasy. Not the literature, per se — I wasn’t an English major — but the community, the fan culture, the way the people and the literature interact. I’d written a few papers on fairy-tale retellings for my folklore department, and a lot more papers on role-playing games for folklore and anthropology both. They gave me a fellowship to write papers on role-playing games. And it’s quite possible that none of it would have happened if it weren’t for The Language of the Night.
If you haven’t heard of that book (and a lot of people haven’t), it’s not fiction; it’s a collection of Ursula’s essays and convention speeches and so on. Reflections on her own work, and on the genre more generally. This is where I first read “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” and “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” — and it’s the book that made me realize, for the first time, that fantasy was something you could think about. Not just in a fannish way, not just in a late-night conversations with your friends kind of way, but intellectually. Academically. I was a junior in college, sitting in my shoebox of a dorm room (smaller, even, than the dealers’ room at Potlatch), and the light bulb went on: I knew what I wanted to do in graduate school.
This, by the way, is the secret of graduate school. It works best when you go there to study something. A specific something, not just “English literature” or whatever. I’d thought vaguely about doing archaeology — that, along with folklore, was my undergrad major, and I liked it quite a lot — but what was I going to do with archaeology? I didn’t know. Then I read The Language of the Night, and I knew I wanted to study science fiction and fantasy. I wanted to take the thoughts Ursula was exploring in that book and run with them. Her collection gave me the kind of passion that makes grad school a good idea. And it paid off, literally and figuratively; that passion came through in my applications, in my papers, in the things I said in class. It led me to the academic analyses of our genres (a thing I didn’t even know existed before grad school), to the various mental tools I use even now.
I never got my Ph.D., but the six years I spent pursuing it are far from wasted. When I read The Language of the Night, I aspired to be the sort of person who had those kinds of thoughts — the sort of writer who thinks that way. I’m not Ursula, and I never will be, but her essays opened a door in my mind, and the country on the other side is a rich and wonderful place.
No need to apologize, Ursula. I owe you a great debt of gratitude for that book.