Saturday’s conversation between Carol Emshwiller and Ursula Le Guin was fabulous and moving and for me the highlight of the 2003 WisCon. Eileen Gunn fed them the occasional question, but mostly they chatted amongst themselves, covering writing about the recent war (Ursula needs to stew on things for a while, so hasn’t yet; for Carol the process is more immediate—she’s already sold a number of stories on the subject, at least one of which is in print), teaching the craft of writing (Ursula loves to steer her students towards contemplating the fine art of comma placement), raising childen while trying to write (apparently the trick is to get them to go to bed by 7:30pm) and a great deal more about the road they’ve had to hoe as writers. It was glorious wittnessing such a warm and easy friendship between two very different women. Ursula’s path has been for the most part golden (does anyone truly have an easy path?) with supportive parents and spouse, while Carol came to writing later, with little support and a certain amount of hinderance from her spouse. Her discussion of the difficulties of stealing time to write whle raising her children ("I felt like I couldn’t breathe," she said at one point, smiling) elicited hisses for her late husband from the audience, and yet there was no condemnation in her words nor even the faintest whiff of bitterness. Ursula claimed to be a rabbit in comparison to Carol’s bravery. Carol claimed that she too was a rabbit. John Kessel dryly pointed out from the audience that, if so, she was a very brave rabbit. The audience laughed a great deal, and I know that I was not the only one whose eyes filled with tears.
Carol is in her eighties and Ursula in her seventies. The average life expectancy of a woman in the USA is 79, so they’re doing well, but have hardly reached Guiness Book of World Records ages. So why the big deal? Carol and Ursula—at any age—are extraordinary people. Warm, witty, compassionate brilliant writers. Part of the big deal is that they are doing some of the best writing of their careers right now. They show that the life of a writer can just keep on going. If you’re healthy and still sparking on all cylinders—though both Carol and Ursula seem to have way more cylinders than most of us—you can write, and more importantly, you can keep getting better. Who doesn’t want to hear that message?
But what filled my eyes with tears as I listened to those two white-haired, sharp-witted, funny, funny women was that not only are they ubelievably cool folk that anyone would give their eyeteeth to hang out with but they run counter to the predominate images of old women we get in the west. Most of us under fifty have never seen anyone remotely like them on television, or on film. We were given no expectations as we grew up that old age for a woman is anything other than a time of horror, ugliness and stupidity. You’ll lose your looks (someone must’ve forgotten to tell Carol and Ursula about that one), your mind (ditto) and will either turn into a mean, screeching witch who eats children or a gentle, silver-haired Stepford grandma with an endless supply of home-baked cookies and homilies and little interest in anything other than her grandchildren.
Most of us in the west are afraid of old age. On Saturday, watching Carol and Ursula talk and laugh about their writing lives, for the first time in my life, I wasn’t remotely afraid.
Madison, Wisconsin, 25 May 2003