In 2001, I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop. A six-week experience that involved writing a story a week for six weeks under the tutelage of successful writers (and one editor) in the speculative fiction field. The first week our instructor was Octavia Butler. I had met Butler once before at the National Black Arts Festival, where I was an intern. She was a big woman with a deep and unique voice. She seemed fascinated with our offices, wanting to see more and more of where the festival was made. Years later, during the workshop, I was in a bathroom stall telling my friend loudly that I didn’t want to write novels, I only wanted to write short stories. “You can’t,” Octavia boomed from the stall next to me. “You can’t live off stories, you have to write a novel.” I have not yet published a novel, though I have two of them in draft form on my hard drive.
Ms. Butler was a true original, from her outer appearance, to the workings of her mind, to her fierce themes, to her stellar artistic output. Happy birthday to her. Here’s a brief para on what she tasked us with at Clarion West.
“Octavia Butler has been good: succinct, regal, clear, powerful, and encouraging. It’s been so amazing to have her, a literary god, commenting on our creations, talking about our characters as if they are people she knows, giving serious consideration to the tales we presented to her. She gave us three tasks: 1. When working on a story, write one sentence that contains the character, the conflict, and the resolution and keep that sentence near you as you write your story. It will keep you from veering off into left field. Most of us found we had great character and conflict but no resolution. 2. Write down point by point, an emotionally wrenching experience we had. Take that emotion (you can use the situation too if you want, but it’s not necessary to), and use it to build a story around. 3. Submit, submit, submit.”
We carry on guided by her fierce talent, sharp mind, and unyielding vision.