Thursday, June 22, 2017

SRPS Inspiration: Life Lessons from Octavia Butler

I've been thinking about Octavia Butler quite a bit lately. I hate to admit I haven't read much of writing, but I've been reading about her and finding more than enough inspiration from her life and struggles as an African American woman trying to find a place in the (still too) white male dominated field of science fiction.

She credits her perseverance for helping her overcome the challenge of trying to be a writer compounded by being an outsider. From a young age she had to navigate through the physical world where people like her -- female and black -- were told not to aim too high, and then find a place in a fictional world where people like her didn't exist. But she persisted, and through her struggles was able to tell stories that took the entire genre of science fiction to an entirely new level by showing us the complexities of humanity and how we are all connected while at the same we are limited by our perspective.

By reading about her struggles and successes, and what she learned from them, we can find guidance for our own lives and inspiration to continue pushing forward.

1. Allow yourself to dream and then get to work.
"We're all capable of climbing so much higher than we usually permit ourselves to suppose."
Fear of failure as well as fear of success can hold us back from pushing ourselves to find our upper limit. I see this in my own life when I'm afraid to follow through on an idea, afraid that it would be seen as silly, or a waste of time. Well, in a way it IS silly to think that following an idea would be a waste of time. No one was ever successful by just staying where they started.

Octavia knew she wanted to be a writer. She wanted her books read by millions of people. She allowed herself to dream of success. But she didn't just dream it into being, she did the long, hard work of making it happen. She wrestled with the uncertainty and fought writer's block and still sat down at the typewriter every day to create the books she had inside her.

2. Do the right thing. Always.
"I have a huge and savage conscience that won't let me get away with things."
Her father died when she was seven, leaving her mother to raise her with the help of her own mother. Together, her mother and grandmother impressed on Octavia the importance of character and following one's conscience. She said, later, that growing up in this strict Baptist home helped to build her adult morality.

This didn't just mean not stealing or telling the truth. It was her conscience that made her keep working even when it was difficult, and to then turn her success into a means to help pull others up the ladder behind her. She used her experience as a writer to help other aspiring authors, and especially writers of color. Even though she was a renowned recluse, she returned several times to the Clarion Writer's Workshop -- the same annual workshop she had attended during her early years -- to advise other struggling writers.

After her sudden death at age 58, an annual scholarship was set up to help writers of color attend the Clarion workshop, fulfilling a promise she'd made to herself to "send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer's workshops."

3. Find a way to be yourself.
"I began writing about power because I had so little."
Like others who are painfully shy in school, and often bullied because of it, she found comfort in books. She was particularly drawn to science fiction. She kept a notebook she filled with her own stories. When she was 10 her mother bought her a typewriter. In 1954, when she was 12, she watched Devil Girl from Mars, and decided she could write a better version. So she did. This early attempt was the template for what eventually became her Patternist series.

As a young black girl living in the 1950s, she had to find a way to be more than what society told her she was. Even if it was just on the pages in her stories, and in the dreams she had of herself. By carving out this space for the inner young Octavia, she fed the fire that lead her to become the adult Octavia, full of determination and perseverance.

4. Don't let anyone say you can't.
"No one was going to stop me from writing and no one had to really guide me towards science fiction. It was natural, really, that I would take that interest."
When she was 13, her aunt, probably more out of kindness than anything else, told Octavia that "Negroes can't be writers." Her aunt, of course, knew a bit more about the world and how it treated African Americans who try to step outside the accepted roles, and thought she was helping Octavia be more realistic in her career goals. But Octavia wasn't having it. She kept on writing, and by the time she was in high school, she submitted her first manuscript to a science fiction magazine.

Thankfully while her aunt was trying to advise her to lower her expectations, her mother was busy helping to raise them. It was her mother who encouraged her to write, who scrimped to buy her a typewriter on a housekeeper's salary, and who gave up her savings for much-needed dental work to help Octavia travel to the Clarion workshop that changed the course of her writing.

5. Representation matters. So does context.
"When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing."
In college Octavia won a college-wide writing contest, her first taste of success. This was also around the time the preliminary idea for Kindred came to her. It was the late-60s, and a fellow African American student railed against what he saw a passivity in previous generations of African Americans when confronted with injustice. Octavia knew the past was more complicated and dangerous, and wanted to find a way to place their actions into historical context. She wanted to show that what may look like passivity and subservience to the modern generation, was a kind of silent strength needed for survival.

She talked with her older relatives about their experiences as maids and gardeners, and listened to their stories of how it was "back then" and found a greater understanding of how they were able to survive by staying silent in the face of adversity, while also planting the seeds for future change. Her mother had to work as a maid, enduring the humiliation of going into the homes of wealthy white people through the backdoor, to pay for Octavia's education and support her dreams of adding her own voice to the stories. And in doing so, Octavia was also able to give voice to the silent generations before her.

6. You have to do the hard work.
"You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence."
After college, she continued to write, taking part time and temporary menial jobs to pay for her small apartment and provide her with the time to write. But she hadn't quite found her voice yet. Her stories were patterned after the writing of white male science fiction authors she'd been reading and didn't accurately reflect her own experiences.

It took nearly a decade, and hundreds of rejection slips, for her to finally work through her early tendency to write like establish authors and find her own style. By the mid-1970s she was working on the novels that would become the Patternist series, and by 1978 she was finally able to support herself with her writing.

That's ten years of getting up each morning at 2 am to sit at the typewriter and write. Even when the words wouldn't come, or the ideas weren't inspiring. Even when she'd rather stay in bed or watch tv, or do pretty much anything other than sit there. Even when she was nearly convinced that everything was trash and she should just give up. She still got up in the dark, and got to work.

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