Science fiction writer Octavia Estelle Butler was the author of a dozen novels and many short stories. She also remains the only science fiction writer to ever receive a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant. Following her death in 2006 fellow writer Steven Barnes said “She put everything she had into her work – she was extraordinarily committed to the craft. Yet, despite her shyness, she was also an open, generous and humane human being.”
1. On Habit
“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.”
2. On Science Fiction
“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
3. On College
“I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me.”
4. On Persistence
“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.”
5. On Writers’ Workshops
“A workshop is a way of renting an audience, and making sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating. It’s so easy as a young writer to think you’re been very clear when in fact you haven’t.”
6. On Being a Writer
“Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.”
7. On Writing Everyday
“And I have this little litany of things they can do. And the first one, of course, is to write – every day, no excuses. It’s so easy to make excuses. Even professional writers have days when they’d rather clean the toilet than do the writing.”
8. On Personal Experience
“I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I’d be a different kind of writer. It’s on a par with, but different from, the fact that I had four brothers who were born and died before I was born. Some of them didn’t come to term, some of them did come to term and then died. But my mother couldn’t carry a child to term, for the most part something went wrong. If they had lived, I would be a very different person. So, anything that happens in your life that is important, if it didn’t happen you would be someone different.”
9. On Research
“I talked to members of my family, and did some personal research that didn’t really have anything to do with the time and place I was writing about, but that gave me a feeling of the experience of being black in a time and place where it was very difficult to be black.”
10. On Theory
“I avoid all critical theory because I worry about it feeding into my work. I mean, I don’t worry about nonfiction in general feeding in—in fact, I hope it will—but I worry about criticism influencing me because it can create a vicious circle or something worse. It’s just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other. It’s not very good for storytelling.”
11. On Being a Friend
“Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it’s all over.”
12. On Writing Kindred
“When I was in college, I began Kindred*, and that was the first (novel) that I began, knowing what I wanted to do. The others, I was really too young to think about them in terms of ‘What do you have to say in this novel?’ I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell. But when I did Kindred, I really had had this experience in college that I talk about all the time, of this Black guy saying, ‘I wish I could kill all these old Black people that have been holding us back for so long, but I can’t because I have to start with my own parents.’ That was a friend of mine. And I realized that, even though he knew a lot more than I did about Black history, it was all cerebral. He wasn’t feeling any of it. He was the kind that would have killed and died, as opposed to surviving and hanging on and hoping and working for change. And I thought about my mother, because she used to take me to work with her when she couldn’t get a baby sitter and I was too young to be left alone, and I saw her going in the back door, and I saw people saying things to her that she didn’t like but couldn’t respond to. I heard people say in her hearing, ‘Well, I don’t really like colored people.’ And she kept working, and she put me through school, she bought her house – all the stuff she did. I realized that he didn’t understand what heroism was. That’s what I want to write about: when you are aware of what it means to be an adult and what choices you have to make, the fact that maybe you’re afraid, but you still have to act.”
13. On Herself
“I’m a 48-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80-year-old writer. I’m also comfortably asocial — a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles — a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”
More Octavia E. Butler
These highlights are taken from the panel discussion filmed at UCLA in 2002. We love the reason she gives for starting to write science fiction.* Kindred was published in 1979 and is Butler’s most popular novel with over 450,000 copies in print. The story’s lead character, Dana, is transported from 1976 Los Angeles to early nineteenth century Maryland. She meets her ancestors: Rufus, a white slave holder, and Alice, an African American woman who was born free but forced into slavery later in life.
Some useful tips in there, thank you. Persistence is probably the main difference between writers who succeed and and those who don’t.
I love this; thank you!
This chalk full of life lessons for writers. Thank you so much for sharing her wisdom.
Thank You 🙂 I love Octavia Butler’s books.
Do you have sources for the quotes? I’m especially interested in the quote about friendship as I have seen it attributed to someone else.
I noticed that too. That quote is definitely from Gloria Naylor. I once read it aloud from her book. I believe it’s Women of Brewster Place. But it is definitely Gloria Naylor.
Apologies for the delayed reply. Since we saw your message we’ve done some checking and found a number of sources attributing the quote to Gloria Naylor and an equal number to Octavia Butler. Unfortunately we haven’t found an original source for either. If you have any luck finding the original, please let us know.
Hey there. It’s definitely Gloria Naylor. I believe from Women of Brewster Place.
Thanks for clearing that up for me.
I’ll try to hit the library and confirm and give you the page. It’s a beautiful passage!