Literary Birthday: Octavia Butler

As a black woman who grew up poor in Pasadena, Octavia Butler (born today in 1947) faced a host of obstacles in her quest to become a bestselling author. Reportedly inspired in her childhood by seeing the B-movie Devil Girl from Mars and thinking she could write better than that, Butler started publishing short fiction in 1971. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976)—kicking off her series of linked dystopic stories featuring telepathy, African mythology, and eugenics—received strong notices.

While revered by other writers, fame and fortune were still far off. To keep herself going, Butler used affirmations. A 2018 Huntington Library exhibition about her work displayed a notebook on which she had written plans for success (“This is my life. I write bestselling novels”) and what she could do with that success (“I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops”).

Writer’s Desk: Keep at It

Parable of the Sower

Like many writers of science fiction, Octavia Butler spent many long years working at her craft while remaining mostly unknown and with precious little to show for it. She is revered today for her classics like The Parable of the Sower and Kindred but for much of her career she toiled in relative obscurity, as so many female writers of color do.

Point being, she knew something about sticking with it.

Here’s what she told Locus magazine back in 2000:

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. 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. It’s just so easy to give up!