Forget inspiration, forget talent, don’t worry about imagination: her advice for a new fiction writer was simple.
"Persist," she said.
Around the time I discovered Octavia Butler’s writing advice, I was still new to writing fiction. I was anxious about both inspiration and talent. I worried about imagination, since in my rather complicated life I had picked up a thousand or more ‘real life’ stories, enough to write many, many pages of narrative. I remember telling my first fiction workshop teacher, Elena Rivera, that I wanted to learn how to break out of the grip of real-life experience.
Twelve years after I typed out my first ‘story,’ I have to say, Octavia was on point. Persistence rewards.
On the morning of Feb. 27, I was shocked to read in an e-mail from Kalamu Ya Salaam’s e-drum list, that Octavia Butler had died. Just a few months ago, I had tried to attend her recent reading in Oakland but since the line was already out the door when I drove up, I continued to drive on. I figured one of these days I’d pick up a copy of Fledgling, her last novel. Now she’s dead. There’s a small regret that I didn’t try harder to go see her.
Thanks to a habit of saving old e-mails, I know exactly when and how I discovered Octavia Butler’s writing.
I was then living in Detroit. On April 30, 1994, I wrote an e-mail to my friend Patsy who was still alive and then living in Buffalo.
"Last week a black woman science fiction writer named Octavia Butler was speaking in town. It was part of an annual event at Marygrove College. I didn’t go because 1) I didn’t know who she was and 2) I was afraid that I’d run into my ex (who attended last year’s event). Now I am sorry I didn’t. While at the library today I picked up her latest novel, Parable of the Sower. I liked how she described herself in the blurb on the book jacket: "a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist always, a black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive." There’s bits of poetry thrown in, attributed to something called: Earthseed: The Books of the Living by Lauren Oya Olamina. I liked what I saw of it. For example: Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channeled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all."
I asked Patsy, "So, have you heard of her? I haven’t read science fiction in years. But neither had I mysteries until December." She had introduced me just four months earlier to Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress.
A few days later, I wrote her: "The Butler sci-fi is keeping my attention so far. There’s a lot of discussion about religion in it, of the unconventional sort; I want to see where she goes with it."
In the next few months, I continued to read every one of her other novels that I could find. I was a spotty reader of science fiction, and I started with the Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago).
On May 31, I wrote Patsy: "I’ve begun Octavia Butler’s sci-fi trilogy; it’s kept my interest though Parable of the Sower did more for me."
I went on to the Patternmaster books, Kindred, and Wild Seed.
Among all her books, I have a special fondness for Wild Seed and the Parable series.
Years later I would read in the preface to Bloodchild and Other Stories that she hated writing short stories, that they would come back rejected, she would go back again and again, and sometimes she would make them work as novels. "Which is what they should have been all along. I am essentially a novelist. The ideas that most interest me tend to be big. Exploring them takes more time and space than a short story can contain. And yet, every now and then one of my short stories really is a short story."
In another little essay in that book titled "Furor scribendi" (A rage for writing), she wrote: "Here are some potential impediments for you to forget about:
"First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.
"Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent. Never let pride or laziness prevent you from learning, improving your work, changing its direction when necessary. Persistence is essential to any writer-the persistence to finish your work, to keep writing in spite of rejection, to keep reading, studying, submitting work for sale. But stubbornness, the refusal to change unproductive behavior or to revise unsalable work can be lethal to your writing hopes.
"Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need, and all the reading, journal writing, and learning you will be doing will stimulate it. Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong. So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and your imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use. Then the real work of fashioning them into a story begins. Stay with it.
On December 5, 1998 I finally saw her when she came to Marcus Books in Oakland. I had been e-mailing back and forth with my friend Karen who wasn’t into science fiction but thoroughly enjoyed the interviews and essays on writing by Octavia Butler I shared with her. Karen said that she had an Octavia Butler kind of childhood. "I, too, lived in the library and was a loner and wrote myself silly."
Karen didn’t make it to the reading, but I did. Octavia signed my copy of Parable of the Talents.
I wrote Karen after the event, "Octavia Butler was good. She had a bad cold, but held up well. The place was packed. She read little, mostly some of the Earthseed verses, but talked about her inspirations and other motivators for the earthseed books, about how she had a problem with Parable of the Sower because she didn’t like Lauren, her main character … and that’s probably why we are seeing a book written from her daughter’s pov. Mentioned that she is working on four novels: written about four earthseed followers who come to take different kinds of journeys (the next one being parable of the trickster). No plans to follow up on any of her earlier books, though she might do something about Doro’s early life (Wild Seed). She was abrupt on some questions (you know the lit. crit. kind or the one about ‘why did you have the woman in Kindred marry a white man’?, actually she answered that obliquely.)" No, I don’t remember any details about that last remark.
Octavia Butler’s name came up in conversations right after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. In Parable of the Sower, Octavia had dramatized scenes in Los Angeles right after a powerful earthquake, when social order had totally disintegrated. The news stories from New Orleans seemed to suggest a scenario like that had come to be, with horrific stories of murder, rape, people at one another’s throats. As it turned out, reality was kinder than the imagined scenario, and the rumors had less to do with reality and more with various people’s preconceived notions, expectations, and the tendency to believe the worst in times of catastrophe.
Last Tuesday, March 14, there was a tribute to Octavia Butler at the Barnes and Noble store in Oakland. About three dozen people came together to share stories of their encounters with Octavia, both the person and the writing. Many black women and men stood up to remember how liberating it had been to see black people written into the future, unlike the white-dominant scenarios of mainstream science fiction. I stood up to share my history with Octavia’s writing. In passing, I said that I had learned from her despite not writing speculative fiction. Later I realized that this isn’t true. While I don’t write science fiction, I have two stories that could be called non-realist fiction. In an immediate sense, they had been inspired by J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. But the truth is, years before I read these two writers, I had already absorbed Octavia Butler’s creations of other worlds.
I have posted here before on the predictions by many that Bangladesh may be partly inundated by the rising waters caused by global warming. For years I have been thinking about writing a story set during such a possible scenario. If I do, the inspiration for that will, in large part, go to Octavia Butler.