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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Patrick Pascale

Octavia Butler: Physical Writing Process

Updated: Jun 24, 2018

Inspiring Oneself

Octavia Butler's groundbreaking writing continues to captivate readers as they rethink humanity and society through the lens of her work. She paved the way for those who would follow in her path, being the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant, the first woman to receive both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and the first African American woman to rise to prominence as a science fiction author. In 2008, the Huntington Library in San Marino, California acquired Butler’s papers, which demonstrated how meticulous she was with her notes and manuscripts. The Huntington said that her papers arrived “in two four-drawer file cabinets and about 35 large cartons. Butler’s papers required intense processing over the next three years.” These include everything from short stories she wrote when she was twelve to programs from her lectures.

This manuscript page has the novel's original title To Keep Thee in All Thy Ways handwritten at the top, which was apparently not an appealing title to Butler's publishers. They wanted to name it "Dana" after the main character, but Butler didn't like that. They eventually agreed on Kindred. Clockshop hosts great pictures of a section Butler wrote in a notebook called "How I Write."

It's surprising to see that the majority of her research time would be taken up on figuring out what the minor details were like in the lives of slaves in the antebellum south. In my DYSTOPIA post, I discussed some of the horrific details of slavery that Butler discovered in her research.

This page provides so much insight into Butler's creative process. She's typed up her plans for the novel Parable of the Sower and she's gone back to both add some more notes as well as emphasize what she wants to do with the book. She's used different highlighters to color-code themes and ideas, as well as writing different ideas in various colors of marker, and then going back and highlighting those as well. The whole page brims with life. I could imagine her referring to this as a guide while she drafted the novel, the colors inspiring her to remember how the different threads of the novel will ultimately come together. However, as awesome as all of that is, what I found the most inspiring and heart warming are the motivational notes and mantras that Butler would write to herself.

This shows so much about the power of setting goals for oneself. Who among us hasn't written in a spiral notebook like that? It's so common and familiar, even down to the end of the spiral starting to become unraveled. And ours probably have stray notes, but do they have these proclamations of what we will achieve with our writing? And she's even included selfless things, "I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writers' workshops." / "I will help poor black youngsters go to college."

You can see similar themes on this page from ca. 1975, around the time Butler sold her first novel. When you read about her background, it's even more inspiring. As a young girl, she saw the mistreatment of humiliation and racism that her mom suffered as a maid and as a child said, "I'll never do what you do, what you do is terrible." In school, she was tall and bookish, making her the target of bullies. As a young adult, she was working the sort of odd jobs she describes Dana working in the beginning of Kindred. This meant she would have to wake up at 2:00 AM to make time to write. I picture her sitting there in the dark, in a world that doesn't support her and doesn't believe in her. She needs encouragement and the only person there to support her is herself, so she writes down her goals to push herself to keep writing until the day she sees those goals come true.

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