Watchword: How Octavia Butler Teaches Us Persistence
Of all the things that have come and gone in my life, I wanted this one thing, just one: to be a writer.
Persistence is an underrated trait that Octavia Butler, while reflecting on her career, noted as the key to her development as an author. She attributed to her researched, prophetic, and deeply imaginative novels to her tenacious desire to know as much about the physical world as possible, naturally and historically, and her fascination with the relationship between humans and the planet we live on—an interdependency best articulated through fiction and poetry. (I like to think the essay has a chance, but I’m not so sure anymore; it depends on the writer.)
Anyway, Butler championed writing practice as a dependable habit, something one can place her hands on as a real activity; something actionable outside of the mind, freeing it to do what it does best. When Butler passed in 2006 at the age of fifty-eight, I wondered how we’d ever replace such a voice. It’s not possible, of course, to substitute one-for-one the body and mind of a sole expression of humanity, but the desire to do so speaks to an artist’s influence and ability to understand what it truly means to transmit, through art, the intimate nature of life and how all things are connected.
The difficulty to communicate this interconnectedness effectively and clearly cannot be understated; Butler understood the difficulty all too well. And though she reluctantly gave interviews, Butler, like any compassionate person, also understood the need to share with young, or emerging, writers that such difficulty is a part of the process. It must be accepted, even if a writer chooses to quit; quitting, too, acknowledges the terms established to make the best art possible.
The writers I’ve cherished the most had this giving heart. I’ve never met an invulnerable, indestructible writer; usually, the lot comprises of people in need of healing of some kind, some malady or wound, and the frustrating thing about writing is that it is not cathartic, nor should one expect it to be. What writing makes clear is the way in which art is an act of transmission.
I’m not surprised Butler’s Parable novels are now seen as prophetic, but I am not convinced that this is the height of Butler’s gift and value to the world. Instead it’s that persistence, I think—that call to get up and shut the door on hope, on wishful thinking. Coming from her clear mind and open heart is a vitality impossible to define or understand, but in her work it always speaks, though the transmission through language and imagination is an inexact science, imperfect and hard to trace however curiously persistent. Beating late at night behind your eyelids, and in between the afterglow of two difficult dreams, is the force that drives your work; it is not a matter of simple utility to persist with habitual work, with discipline, for discipline is only the methodology which captures for the moment the reality of things and beings. With discipline, you can let go of craft and talent, of big ideas, of self-destructive doubt, because something beyond you is at work. Butler’s work points to this rhythm, this transmitted spirit that animates all artists.
I’ve never met an indestructible writer; usually, the lot comprises of people in need of healing of some kind.
Or maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know. When Butler said, “I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider,” I, like so many other black writers, found a mirror. Please forgive me for a kind of shortsightedness here, this habit—speaking of habits—to reach for the universal while neglecting the subjective source. All of the preceding on Butler comes from my heart, so you could say perhaps I’m asking myself to forgive myself; to create a space between my body and the laptop for my spirit to say what needs to be said (a declarative position shared by Butler, I’m sure of it). I’m tired of negating myself, in other words. It can’t go on, this playing small ball all while tuned to the universe, acting like I’m not only a part of the world, but a creator within it—black, solitary, rooted. An outsider? I don’t know. From one point of view, no. But who cares? Like Butler, I wish to connect with, then wield my own power.
The other day, I listened to an author whose manuscript I’m editing, a memoir of his seventy-plus-year life. It was the second time in five years I sat across from a black man in a literary meeting for a book, a work of his creation, one I am charged to help bring into the world. I focused entirely on everything he had to say, with no idea, in retrospect, of myself in relation to the author or the meeting in whole. I am his editor, the advocate in the room who says, in short, “This is what the book is about, and it represents the author, who is to be respected.”
I had the audacity of calling myself an editor before anyone else paid me to do it, never believing the title would amount to anything more than a designation for a person launching an unprofitable and now defunct literary magazine. But of all the things that have come and gone in my life, of all the people, of all the many selves I’ve become and then abandoned for a new self I thought might satisfy me, I wanted this one thing, just one: to be a writer.
And now, I sit across writers who get to be writers, and this elder black man hugged me on the way out, saying to me, “I’m glad you’re here,” and I went home an hour later, blanked of thoughts in the backseat of a Lyft, feeling myself. That I once wrote and edited for free, without much complaint, reminds me to look back, to not get too futuristic or drunk on what’s-to-come while neglecting what has been, what did occur, what I’ve done.
With discipline, you can let go self-destructive doubt, because something beyond you is at work. Butler’s work points to this rhythm.
And if there is anything besides that one thing I’ve always wanted, something other than being a writer, I also wanted just as badly to understand why—to know and state as an absolute and commanding edict, dictating in clear, cold-blooded language all the reasons why it must be so, it must be like this; to rest in knowledge that would eliminate all doubt, justify all the bloody years looking here and there, floating from state to plane, from body to mind and back, looking for permission to be, to become, to stand as simply this.
The way I saw it, suffering for one’s art seemed like a ridiculous byproduct of generating joy and spirit through a medium, through an art form; sometimes, though, I thought maybe suffering and art had to go hand-in-hand, like reading and writing. But we know better, when we arrive at that fundamental point in life where we can no longer fool ourselves; when, in looking back, all those moments of rage and anger can be traced back to ourselves and we want most. I don’t regret becoming an editor, but I have not given back to myself through my writing; for a time I thought I lost something necessary to write, never minding the dead thing I clutched tightly in my fist, this steady ambition to please phantoms and illusions, to pursue instead of observe and feel, to scheme and wish for success rather than intuiting a way to service without feeling used.
Persistence is the way, Octavia Butler teaches us as much. But first one must combat himself, and win, in order to set the table—where the next promise for opportunity and a paycheck can be reviewed, quietly and over black coffee, measured against the necessity to match the future in one’s mind with what is being created before one’s eyes.