Someone Named Delores

This blog post is included in:

No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters

by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler

December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sentence in a story has been troubling me. The story, by Zadie Smith, was in The New Yorker recently (October 11, 2010). It’s in the first person, but I don’t know whether it’s fiction or memoir. Many people don’t even make the distinction, now that memoir takes the liberties of fiction without taking the imaginative risks, and fiction claims the authority of history without assuming the factual responsibilities. To my mind the I of a memoir or “personal essay” is a very different matter from the I of a story or novel, but I don’t know if Zadie Smith sees it that way. And so I don’t know whether she’s speaking as a character in fiction or as herself when towards the end of her tale of a seemingly unrepaid loan to a friend she says, “The first check came quickly but sat in a pile of unopened mail because these days I hire someone to do that.”

The implacable editor in my hindbrain promptly inquired You hire someone not to open the mail? I silenced the meddling reptile, but the sentence continued to bother me.

“These days I hire someone to do that.” What’s wrong with that? Well, I guess it’s the “someone.” Someone is no one. The nameless nobody hired to answer the mail of a somebody with a name.

So, at this point I’m beginning to hope that the story is fiction and thus that the narrator is not Zadie Smith, because this doesn’t sound like the voice of a writer highly sensitive to class and color prejudices. It reminded me, in fact, of the dean’s wife, when I was a lowly assistant professor’s wife, who couldn’t leave “my housekeeper” out of her conversation for five minutes, she was in such a state of admiration of herself for having the grand house that required keeping and the housekeeper to keep it. But that was silly, naive, like Mr Collins continually mentioning “my patron Lady Catherine de Bourgh.” The statement “these days I hire someone to do that” has a harsher ring to it.

And so what? Why shouldn’t a highly successful writer hire help and say so? And what skin is it off my nose?

Envy, of course, in the first place. I am envious of people who hire a servant with perfect assurance of righteousness. I envy self-confidence even as I dislike it. Envy co-exists only too easily with righteous disapproval. Indeed perhaps the two nasty creatures live off each other.

And then, annoyance. There’s an “of course” implied in “I hire someone to do that,” and there’s no of course about it. But people think there is, and this kind of talk encourages them to think so — which annoys me.

It’s a widespread illusion: a writer (a successful writer, a real writer) doesn’t do her own mail. She has a secretary to do it, as well as helpers, amanuenses, researchers, handlers — lord knows what — maybe an Editor’s Hole in the east wing, like the Priest’s Hole in old British houses.

I imagine writers commonly had secretaries, a century ago. Henry James did, sure enough. But Henry James was not exactly your average writer, right?

Virginia Woolf didn’t.

Among writers I know personally, only one has a secretary to do mail. To me it seems a perquisite of the extremely successful, and of a magnitude of success that daunts me. Privacy to be with my family and do my work was of the first importance to me. So, when I began to need help answering my letters, I found it extremely difficult to convince myself that I needed it badly enough to justify my hiring “someone,” bringing a stranger into my study, setting myself up as a boss.

I always had trouble calling Delores my secretary, it sounded so pompous (echoes of “my housekeeper…”) If I had to speak of her to strangers I said her name, or “my friend who does mail for me.” But I knew that this latter phrase was one of the mildly devious devices by which we handle guilt, the ways we try to re-introduce humanity into the relationship of hirer and hired, which inevitably, to whatever slight a degree, involves inequality, the raising up of one and degradation of the other. Democracy by strenuously denying the fact of inequality does enable us, to a surprising extent, to act as if it didn’t exist; but it does exist, and we know it. So our job is to keep the inequity of power as small as possible, and refuse to let our common humanity be reduced, however slightly, even by a careless word, by an assertion of unequal worth.

My envy of writers who hire a person to handle their mail and annoyance at people who assume that I have such help are really quite mild, but they are painful now, because I did have “someone,” but I have lost her.

Delores Rooney, later Delores Pander, was my helper and dear friend.

Thirty years ago or so, I finally got up my courage and asked around for recommendations of a professionally competent and discreet person to give me a hand with my letters, which were getting beyond me. Our mutual friend Martha West, who had worked with Delores as a secretary in an office, recommended her. She was then working as manager-agent for a dance company. We rather nervously gave it a try.

I had never dictated anything to anybody (outside Beginning French courses where you very slowly and clearly read a dictée in French to the students who very slowly and inaccurately write it down.) Delores had taught herself shorthand and was a whiz at it — a skill now, I suppose, almost entirely lost? — and she’d taken lots of dictation from lots of dictators. She coached me in composing a letter orally, and encouraged me with praise; she was an excellent teacher. And also she’d worked and lived with artists, painters, dancers, and was used to artistic temperamental peculiarities, having a few of her own.

We got to doing letters quickly and easily, and I soon began to draw on her as a collaborator in composing the letters — what to say and how to say it. Does that sound all right? What if you said this instead of that? What on earth am I going to write to the man who sent me the 600-page manuscript about fairies on Venus? This one’s a whiner, you don’t have to answer him… — Delores was always better than me at kind answers to kooks, but she was tough-minded, too, and encouraged me not to answer a letter that was troublingly weird or made unreasonable demands. She got to be so good at replying to the eternally repeated questions that I could hand her a letter and just say “Idea for Catwings” and the tale of how I happened to think of cats with wings was all ready in in her computer — though she varied it according to her mood and the age of the inquirer. She had a gracious, graceful tone in discouraging problematic requests by explaining why I couldn’t personally reply just now. She covered for me beautifully. She loved to answer children’s letters, even when they were the mechanical kind some teachers make kids write. The open kindness and generosity of her spirit lent all my correspondence a quality it would never have had without her collaboration.

She never came more than once a week, usually only once every three or four weeks. I’d do the most urgent business correspondence and let the rest and the fan mail pile up. She got a computer before I did, and it eased her work a great deal. When I got one, it didn’t make much difference at first. But when e-mail really got going I began to be able to deal with all the real business myself. Still Delores and I together handled non-urgent business, the fan letters from readers, and what we called The Gimmies: the letters everybody who becomes visible to the public gets, asking you to do this, give to that, endorse this book, speak at that good cause, etc. Even if you can’t possibly say yes to them, most such letters are well-intentioned and deserve a civil no. Delores said no thank you in every possible way, always politely. It was a great burden off me. She said that the Gimmies were boring but just various enough to be entertaining too.

As for fan mail, letters from readers have always come to me on paper only, my crude but effective way of keeping the volume down. The letters people write me — often with pen and ink, or in pencil, crayon, glitter, and other media if they’re children — are ever-amazing, giving me immense pleasure and reward, but they are also never-ending. I knew there was no way I could handle the load if I tried to read and answer them on my website or on email. But I have always felt that such letters deserve a reply, however brief, and for years Delores was my invaluable aide in answering them.

We loved each other as friends, but didn’t have extensive contact outside our work sessions. She was a busy woman: she soon became Jean Auel’s secretary four days a week, and was agent and manager for her husband the painter Henk Pander; when her parents grew old and sick she looked after them, and late in life she adopted and brought up her granddaughter. Our friendship was expressed mostly during and in our working relationship. I always looked forward to Delores coming, and we always spent half the time talking, catching up. Once, when I was scared by a stalker, she and Henk gave me wonderful immediate support.

As the years went on she seemed to grow shyer and more withdrawn from her friends than she had been, I do not know why. She told me once that she liked coming to work with me because we laughed together.

Her computer began to get out of date, and her life was complicated by various issues; her energy was being overtried. She couldn’t or didn’t want to figure out how to help me with e-correspondence the way she did with paper mail, which she took home along with dictated answers or suggested notes from me. So I came to do all the email and most of the letters, leaving her only some Gimmies and no-thank-yous and those fan letters that needed only acknowledgment.

Delores’s joy in life had been visibly flagging for a long time when she was diagnosed, last year, with cancer. At first it seemed local and curable, but proved to be metastasizing. It killed her in a few months. There was a brief and lovely respite or remission for a few weeks late in her illness, when we were able to visit with her quite often, and laughed together as we had used to laugh. Then the cruel disease closed in again. She died a few months ago, attended with great tenderness by her husband.

I find it extremely hard to talk about people I loved who have died. I can’t now make a proper tribute to that complex and beautiful woman, or say more than that I miss her friendship in every way.

Without her, I’ve had to give up the effort to answer fan mail, at least temporarily. As for the Gimmies, some of them get answered, some of them don’t. I suppose I could hire someone to do that.

But I doubt that I will. I can’t put my heart into it.

— UKL
9 November 2010

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Breaking WavesUrsula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.

She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.

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Someone Named Delores — 16 Comments

  1. Beautiful tribute. I’ve loved your writing since I discovered ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’ one summer at the bookstore in Estes Park.

  2. “Envy co-exists only too easily with righteous disapproval. Indeed perhaps the two nasty creatures live off each other.”

    I love this quote – and it is painfully recognisable too.

    Beautiful tribute to Delores, thank you. I have enjoyed your books for more than twenty years, and I am so happy that you have begun to write blogs.

  3. I love reading about the “someones” even if they aren’t heroes. But many times it’s the someones who make it possible for the heroes to keep heroing.

  4. Dear Ms. Le Guin,

    I am very sorry to hear you lost a partner and friend. I was one of the people who wrote to tell you your work was (is) one of my lodestars and to share with you the proofs of my first book, To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. I kept your reply; now I know that part of it came from Ms. Pander and knowing this makes the letter even more moving.

    We humans seem to have structured our society so that power differentials are ever-present. In my other career as a research scientist, I have lived through the apprentice system that dominates the domain. Virginia Woolf, of course, wrote vividly of her own violently conflicting feelings about her servants and the assistants in the Hogarth Press. Perhaps the unease comes from the knowledge that unsung partners are usually vital to quests.

  5. That’s a lovely tribute, and your friendship and work with Delores sounds like it enriched both of your lives.

    I do wonder (without the context to judge it) with the Zadie Smith piece, if there isn’t a touch of self-mockery in the line you quote? From the little of Smith’s writing I”ve read, I’d have said she was unlikely to be unsensitive to matters of class and race.

    For a couple of years we had had Maria, a lovely Brazilian woman, who came and cleaned our house once every two weeks. I never quite got over my guilty queasiness about employing her–but she was a brilliant cleaner (which I am not) and this was her business, and when we had to forego her services I felt terrible having to tell her. She shrugged, and let me know she had plenty of work and I shouldn’t worry. I never could quite bring myself to describe her, as some of the people I know did, as “my cleaner” for the same reasons you give. Ick.

  6. I’ve been a someone and I’ve had the amazing good fortune, at various times in my life, to have a friend help me with whatever is overwhelming me at the moment.

    The first was Star. I met her through the women’s martial arts network. When her small paper-goods shop went out of business and she was at loose ends and low on cash, I hired her to organize my garage. That led to house cleaning, errand running, even grocery shopping and picking up my older daughter after school when I was at bed rest for premature labor with my second. She wasn’t a “housekeeper,” she was a member of the family.

  7. Deepest sympathies on the loss of your friend. I particularly appreciate that you both had to work through the nuances of class difference and did so with humor and humanity instead of struggle and hypocrisy. There was never a danger of your being Zadie.

  8. This is a great tribute to your friend. I’m so sorry for your loss. May you be comforted by her memory.

    Of course, you don’t have the heart to think about replacing her now and nobody could ever replace her. But if some time in the future I could be of service to you in that way, or in any other way, I would consider it a great honor.

    I’ve been reading and rereading your books since I was a young girl. You’ve been one of my dearest teachers for most of my life, and I feel a deep connection to your work. My Aunt Nonie was so much like you in her keen intelligence and powers of observation, and also in her voice and use of language, that when I saw a video of you speaking (with Margaret Killjoy), I felt a shock of recognition that prompted me to write you last year. You sent me a wonderful note in reply, signed Cousin Ursula, which I treasure. Now that I know it may have been Dolores who replied rather than you personally, I’m no less charmed and delighted. Thank you so much for telling us about your friend. You two must have been very close.

    I’m disabled now and had to retire from my engineering job. I have Lupus among other things. I’m very fortunate that all have left my mind clear. Though I rest for most of each day, I do still have ten to twenty hours a week in which I can do reading, correspondence or other mental work.

    Though I’m sure you have many willing students, and though we’d be able to communicate only by phone, computer, or mail, still I’d be delighted and greatly honored if I could help you in any way. Please reply to the email address on this post if I can be of use to you. Thank you. And thank you again so much for your rich and marvelous work which has fed my spirit for four decades.

  9. Thank you for this loving tribute. I am so sorry you have lost such a wonderful friend and assistant.

    I remember as a child sharing drawings I had done with the women who came to clean our household. I never thought of them as just hired help, not the ones who came for more than a few times. They were like extended family, and had their place in the cosmic scheme. When as an adult I was finally able to hire someone to help out, she was a gift at a time I desperately needed that help. She cleaned houses for a living, and I have never seen it done better. But she was an interesting woman in her own right, gutsy and raising four children alone. I hope she is well now, and that she knew how much I admired her. I tried to tell her so.

  10. We can’t all BE writers. But I have been privileged to work for several writers, and it has enriched my life.

    My condolences on the loss of your trusted friend.

    — Rachel Holmen

  11. Pingback: Wednesday various « occasional fish

  12. Good luck finding an assitant if you need one.
    I heard “envy is a motivating energy”.
    Well maybe it can be.
    Women think new thoughts sometimes, do we not.

  13. Assistant assistant (this happens blogging at 1.30a.m.)
    Online spelling mistakes from not proofreading before pressing “enter”. I am still getting over the thrill. I don’t like to be un-Australian but it is very nice to have found this.