The Best of Octavia Butler’s “Positive Obsession” Essay

I just finished reading Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild: And Other Storiesand I was struck by the simplicity of her characters and the complexity of their worlds. Especially in Bloodchild, where she depicts a very nuanced relationship in a new world order. If you have the opportunity to get the Audible version, I highly recommend it; The narration by Janina Edwards is excellent.

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Bloodchild Fan Art

Among the fictional short stories is a reprint of an autobiographical article that originally appeared in Essence magazine. Butler’s title for the piece was originally Positive Obsession, but the magazine changed it to Birth of a Writer, which she never liked. The short personal essays give us a glimpse into the life of a shy young lady who defied all odds to become the only black female science fiction writer of her time, and a mother to Afrofuturism. I’ve selected the quotes that resonated most with me, and that provide sage advice for anybody interested in a writing career. You can read the full essay here. 

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‘I think,’ my mother said to me one day when I was ten, ‘that everyone has something that they can do better than they can do anything else. It’s up to them to find out what that something is.’

As a young girl, Butler was a voracious reader, reading whatever books she could get her hands on, but once she ran out of stories to read, she started writing her own. Despite her shyness, she found the courage to write, and to imagine a future where she would make her living as a writer, even when most people around her were quick to remind her that black females couldn’t be writers.

I like the idea that we’re all here for a reason and that we all have some secret talent or skill buried deep inside of us that’s just waiting to be coaxed out.

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I hid out in a big pink notebook—one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself 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.

It’s no secret that writing can be a form of escape, a way to imagine another life for ourselves and the suffering people of this world. Butler has also previously expressed that her writing has also been a way for her to cope with her fear or anxiety. In fact, Bloodchild was, in part, the result of her anxiety over insects in South America. On a trip to the Peruvian Amazon to do research for her Xenogenesis books, she was introduced to the botfly, which lays its eggs in the wounds of bites left behind by other insects. The thought of a maggot living and growing underneath her skin gave her the heebie-jeebies, so she wrote about it, and thus Bloodchild was born.

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An obsession, according to my old Random House dictionary, is “the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.” Obsession can be a useful tool if it’s positive obsession. Using it is like aiming carefully in archery.

…Positive obsession is about not being able to stop just because you’re afraid and full of doubts. Positive obsession is dangerous. It’s about not being able to stop at all.

What a fascinating concept! We all have the ability to obsess over things (some of us better than others), so why not re-focus that energy into an area of your life that you want to see improvement in? Instead of obsessing over [insert whatever bullshit thing you obsess over throughout the day] you can focus that on your health, your art, your community, or whatever you want. Such a simple concept.

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When I was older, I decided that getting a rejection slip was like being told your child was ugly. You got mad and didn’t believe a word of it. Besides, look at all the really ugly literary children out there in the world being published and doing fine!

HA! So true. Why does rejection or failure feel so damn painful? The answer is: it doesn’t need to be. We’re in control of our reactions to these moments, why agonize over it? Maintain confidence in what you’re doing, and the recognition will come. Haters gonna hate, just keep it moving!

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There seems to be an unwritten rule, hurtful and at odds with the realities of American culture. It says you aren’t supposed to wonder whether as a Black person, a Black woman, you really might be inferior—not quite bright enough, not quite quick enough, not quite good enough to do the things you want to do. Though, of course, you do wonder.

YES. As a woman of color, I identify with this so much. Some people might call this “Impostor Syndrome,” but I think it’s much different. Marginalized communities are systematically subjugated, demeaned, trivialized, and yet, at the same time, we’re told to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” and reach for the American dream. It’s fucking bullshit. We’re supposed to exude confidence and self-assuredness in our work, but all of these feelings and thoughts are always just underneath the surface. The solution is not to fake it ’til you make it, instead, fake it ’til you ARE it. The truth always manifests itself.

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At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what “everyone” is saying, doing, thinking—whoever “everyone” happens to be this year.

This was Butler’s response to the question, “What good is science fiction to Black people?” It was a question she often faced when she started doing public speaking. At first, Butler resented the question, feeling that she didn’t need to justify her career to anyone. But after much reflection, she thought of an answer that satisfied her. Science fiction and other speculative fiction gives us an opportunity to explore different perspectives, different outcomes, different worlds, and by doing so, maybe change the course of what’s happening now, even if it’s only changing the mind of one person. That’s powerful!

In closing, Octavia Butler was an incredible woman who fought the odds to become one of the most respected writers of her time. If you haven’t read any of her work, give Bloodchild a try, and you’ll see what makes her work so iconic. Also, if you’re in the Los Angeles area, make sure to check out her exhibit at the Huntington. It runs through August 7th, 2017 and contains more than a hundred items, including manuscripts, photographs, and notebooks filled with writing and self-motivational notes, like the one below. I want to go!

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