Octavia Estelle Butler was born in 1947 in Pasadena, CA.
Known in her early years as “Estelle,” she was raised by a single, widowed mother who worked domestic jobs to make ends meet. Painfully shy and introverted from a young age, Estelle became an easy target for bullying at school. Her shyness combined with slight dyslexia made schoolwork difficult as well.
Estelle’s answer was to turn inward – to her own imagination – and outward, to the Pasadena Central Library, where she would spend countless hours reading fairy tales and horse stories, and later, the fantasy and science-fiction novels that would inspire her to become a writer.
Despite so much stacked against her, this young woman would eventually become one of the most successful and influential science-fiction writers of her generation, winning multiple Hugo and Nebula awards and in 1995 becoming the first sci-fi writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship (known as the “Genius Grant”).
How could an intensely shy little girl become a world-renowned, award-winning writer? How could an impoverished and overworked young woman emerge as a powerful prophet of the future?
There are clues in the Octavia Butler Archives, a collection of 9,062 items filling 386 boxes that was donated to the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA after Butler’s death. It contains her journals, commonplace books, speeches, library call slips, essay and story drafts, school notes, calendars, and datebooks as well as assorted odds and ends like school progress reports, bus passes, yearbooks, and contracts.
A new book by Lynell George, A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia Butler (from which all the quotations in this article are drawn), tells the story of how Estelle’s notes played a crucial part in her journey.
Early signs of promise and peril
Estelle’s teachers at Garfield Elementary evaluated her earliest writing harshly, with comments like “Hyperbolic” and “You’re not even trying” scribbled in the margins.
A teacher once questioned in the margins of one of her writing assignments, “…why include the science fiction touch? I think the story would be more universal if you kept to the human, earthly touch.” And reported to her mother that, “She has the understanding, but doesn’t apply it. She needs to learn self discipline.”
At the age of 10, Estelle’s mother bought her a Remington typewriter to encourage her fledgling writing. She had no idea how to use it and spent years pecking away one finger at a time. When Estelle was 12 years old, she watched the 1954 film Devil Girl From Mars, a sensationalist B-film that was so terrible it convinced her on the spot that she could write something better.
She said, “Until I began writing my own stories, I never found quite what I was looking for…In desperation, I made up my own.” She continues, “I made a universe in it. There I could be a magic horse, a Martian, a telepath. There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these.”
As the possibility of becoming a professional writer slowly dawned on her, Estelle began her transformation into “Octavia,” her powerful, assertive alter-ego. Octavia took on a series of temporary or part-time jobs after graduating from high school: clerical, factory, warehouse, laundry, and food preparation gigs. Anything that wasn’t too mentally taxing, allowing her to maintain a habit of waking before dawn each morning to write.
Taking notes on the future
The emerging Octavia made three rules for herself:
- Don’t leave your home without a notebook, paper scraps, something to write with.
- Don’t walk into the world without your eyes and ears focused and open.
- Don’t make excuses about what you don’t have or what you would do if you did, use that energy to “find a way, make a way.”
Thus began Butler’s lifelong relationship with her commonplace books. She would scrape together twenty-five cents to buy small Mead memo pads, and in those pages took notes on every aspect of her life: grocery and clothes shopping lists, last-minute to-do’s, wishes and intentions, calculations of her remaining funds for rent, food, and utilities. She meticulously tracked her productivity and writing progress: daily goals and page counts, lists of her failings and desired personal qualities, her wishes and dreams for the future, and contracts she would sign with herself each day for how many words she would complete.
And of course, Butler gathered material for her fantastical stories: lyrics to songs she’d heard on the radio, an idea for a character’s name or motivation, a new topic to research, details of news stories – everything she needed to build the worlds her characters would inhabit.
She studied dozens of topics both in school and independently – anthropology, English, journalism, and speech. She traveled to the Amazon and Inca ruins in Peru to get a firsthand taste of biodiversity and civilizational collapse. Like a journalist, Butler had a love for cold, hard facts to imbue her stories with a sense of authenticity and concreteness: “The greater your ignorance the more verifiably accurate must be your facts,” she said.
As one of the first black women to gain recognition in the sci-fi genre, Butler explored ideas and themes that had been largely ignored until then: the potential consequences of environmental collapse due to climate change, corporate greed, the growing gap between the wealthy and poor, gender fluidity and the “othering” of marginalized groups, and criticism of the hierarchical nature of society, among others. She was a pioneer of Afrofuturism, a genre that cast African-Americans as protagonists who embrace radical change in order to survive. Her stories allowed her readers to visualize futures in which marginalized people are heroes, not victims.
One of Butler’s novels, The Parable of the Sower, hit the New York Times Bestseller list for the first time in 2020, fulfilling one of Butler’s life goals 14 years after her death. The book portrays a post-apocalyptic future in which small communities must band together in order to survive.
Lauren Valdez describes the story in a blog post: “Two decades before the election of Trump, Sci-Fi writer Octavia Butler wrote about a presidential candidate with a zealot religious following who promises to ‘make America great again.’ The book Parable of the Sower takes place in the 2020s, the decade referred to as ‘The Pox’ short for the apocalypse. The book, part of her Earthseed series, is a haunting depiction of a post-climate disaster society. Water is more expensive than gasoline. Public institutions shut down, most people are illiterate, and many die.”
These eerily prescient forecasts resonated with readers as the COVID pandemic unfolded, as our own time began to seem similarly bleak and uncertain. The radical re-imagination of what life can look like is no longer idle speculation – it has become a daily necessity for people around the world.
Butler has been called a prophet for her ability to forecast the future, but she often said that her work came from simply imagining, “If this goes on… it extrapolates from current technology, current ecological conditions, current social conditions, current practices of any sort. It offers good possibilities – as well as warnings.”
Butler knew that science-fiction was more than entertainment. It was a transformative way of viewing the world. Science-fiction removes barriers and constraints on what we allow ourselves to envision. Anything is possible in the future, so why not fill it with the people, the stories, the places, and the events that you most want to see?
She explained that “Science fiction allows me to write about sexually and/or racially egalitarian societies that don’t exist anywhere on earth today. I don’t write about perfect societies – utopias – first because they’re boring, and second because I don’t think they’re attainable by imperfect humans. But I can visualize societies in which sex and race are interesting differences and not a mark of inferiority or superiority.”
Fueling writing with life
Butler drew on her life experience as a primary source: “The painful, horrifying, the unpleasant things that happen, affect my work more strongly than the pleasant ones. They’re more memorable and more likely to goad me into writing interesting stories.”
She used her notes and her writing to confront the demons of self-doubt within her: “The biggest obstacle I had to overcome was my own fear and self doubt – fear that maybe my work really wasn’t good enough, maybe I wasn’t smart enough; maybe the people telling me I couldn’t make it were right.”
The myth of the writer sitting down before a completely blank page, or the artist at a completely blank canvas, is just that – a myth. Prolific creatives depend on prolific notes. They constantly draw on sources of inspiration – their own daily experiences and observations, lessons gleaned from successes and failures alike, and the work of others.
Butler used every bit of life experience and every bit of detail from the books she immersed herself in: “Use what you have; even if it seems meager, it may be magic in your hands.” She found a way to express her voice and her ideas even when her circumstances made it seem impossible.
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