I am lucky enough to have various memories of her. She taught my Clarion West in 1987, but I was almost too shy to hand in a story in her week. She gave us an exercise that I have ever since called the Ursula exercise; and when that exercise turned into a story that I sold to Amazing (with Phil Jennings), I called it "Ursula Redux," not having a better title. (I also remember her creeping through the halls of the dormitory where we were staying, clutching a battery-powered water-gun, but that's another story.) When I wrote my first novel, The Fox Woman, I took my courage in my hands and wrote her asking for a blurb. She sent a polite typed letter back, explaining that she wasn't doing blurbs at the moment, but wishing me well. A few months later, I received a hand-written postcard telling me that she had loved the book, ending, "I am so proud of you, fox girl!"
She taught the Soapstone workshop I attended in 1998, as well, and I had a second chance to work with her. At least three stories came out of that: I wrote the first One Dog stories for what eventually became "The Invention of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change," (for The Coyote Road) as well as a prosodic experiment that turned into "Elfrithe's Ghost," for Realms of Fantasy; and a very short piece called, "The Snow Wife," which ended up here and there, including, oddly, the holiday supplement for a Colombian newspaper. I am also pretty sure that the first tentative bits of Fudoki came from this. These were all her stories; I would never have written them without her.
I would never have written anything without her.
She was my Polaris. As a child, I had always pointed toward her. Earthsea and Orsinia and her science fiction and everything she touched, I touched as well -- excited in a way I couldn't explain then, but can now: the only woman that wrote books with rockets on the spines in the little library of my home town. (Leigh? Andre? Men's names, right? As an eight-year-old, I thought so.) I had no notion of being a writer, but she was my entry-point to a world I yearned for with my whole heart, the world of science fiction.
And later, too, after I did become a writer. I never wrote without thinking of her. Ever. What would Ursula say if she read this? What about that? I hope she would like what I am doing here. I thought about her when I wrote flash about mantises, a novella about a middle-aged woman questing, tales of dogs and cats and cephalopods and aliens -- even "Spar." Especially "Spar." I knew she would get it. She never wrote me directly about my writing, but every so often I would find out she had said something generous and exciting about my work, and then I would try even harder, to deserve it.
I have thought a lot about who she was. I didn't know her well, though I treasured the fact that I had her address, and only abused the privilege a few times, sending her a book, holiday cards once in a while. But I watched her speeches when she gave them, and listened to her read, read her words, and thought about her footprint in the world: this pragmatic, passionate, sensible, earthy, kind, realistic woman. I realize as I write this, that she is all I have ever wanted to be, what I have striven to become.
Ursula, thank you. I don't know what exactly you ended up believing about what comes after this. Me, I believe it is quiet and dark, a sleep without dreams. I hope that either before or after your death you had a sudden warm flush of contentment, aware of all the lives you changed, all the ways you moved out beyond your body, and will continue to do so. I am sad that you are no longer in this world, but I will keep writing with you in mind. Always and ever.