“Only for a moment did the spirit glimmer there. Then the sallow oval between Ged’s arms grew bright. It widened and spread, a rent in the darkness of the earth and night, a ripping open of the fabric of the world. Through it blazed a terrible brightness. And through that bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous…”
As a twelve-soon-to-turn-thirteen-year-old boy, that moment in A Wizard of Earthsea stopped me. I’d been given what was at that time the Earthsea trilogy of books for Christmas, and I remember blinking at the page when I first read that scene and those words. I was aware even then, in a slow and plodding, newly awakening kind of way that something powerful was happening. I went back and reread that scene, those sentences. Then I read them again, and again, and again, until my inner ear heard them not as words in a book to be read, but for what they were: an incantation, an enchantment, a spell.
I realized then that Ged, in all his flawed and relatable anger and fear, was not the Wizard of Earthsea that I had assumed him to be. The real wizard of Earthsea could not actually be found within the story, and yet was present on every page, because the author was the wizard. Ursula K. Le Guin was the wizard.
I realized then that not a single word in that passage could be changed without breaking the spell she had cast over me. I knew the shadow could be nothing else but a clot, or it would be something entirely different than what it was. I knew with certainty that Le Guin had chosen every word with intent and with care. I sensed a kind of exhilarating power in that, and freedom, as though someone had just placed a wand in my hand.
I realized then that I wanted to be a writer, and now, nearly thirty years later, that moment with Le Guin has shaped the writer that I am more than any other experience or influence, and she has continued to teach me during these nearly-thirty years. I learned from every book of hers that I read, whether science fiction, fantasy, contemporary realism, or her essays and nonfiction. The lessons were not only related to the craft of writing, but also to the living of life. In her work I have always found wisdom, and truth, and grace.
When I wrote to her seven years ago and sent her a copy of my first novel, I didn’t express enough of that. I felt insecure, and I didn’t want to bother her. But I did tell her that I was a writer because of her, and a couple of weeks later, much to my surprise, she wrote me back.
My hands trembled a bit as I opened the envelope, and I cried as I read the note in which she complimented and encouraged me with enthusiasm and sincerity. She spoke not to the me who had just sold his first novel, but directly to the twelve-year-old inside me who had a dream, and it’s hard to describe that kind of validation. Then, when she graciously offered a quote for the cover of my second novel, I felt that I had come to the completion or fulfillment of something profound, which of course means the beginning of something else.
A few years ago, I encountered another Le Guin quote:
“Socrates said, ‘The misuse of language induces evil in the soul…’ A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.”
If my work as a writer were to ever have a mission statement, that would be it. Richard Peck has said that as authors, we write by the light of every book we have ever read, and in the constellation of my literary inspirations and heroes, Le Guin shines brightest. She may have passed away today, but her light has not gone out, and her magic has not faded. Her spells and enchantments remain, full of truth.