Behold Octavia Butler’s Motivational Notes to Self

Handwritten notes on the inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, 1988

I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining. —Octavia E. Butler

Like many authors, the late Octavia E. Butler took up writing at a young age.

At 11, she was churning out tales about horses and romance.

At 12, she saw Devil Girl from Mars, and figured (correctly) she could tell a better story than that, using 2 fingers to peck out stories on the Remington typewriter her mother bought at her request.

At 13, she found a copy of The Writer magazine abandoned on a bus seat, and learned that it was possible to submit her work for publication.

After a decade’s worth of rejection slips, she sold her first two stories, thanks in part to her association with the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshop, which she became involved with on the recommendation of her mentor, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison.

She went on to become the first science fiction writer to receive a prestigious MacArthur “genius” award, garnering multiple Hugo and Nebula awards for her work.

An asteroid is named after her, as is a mountain on Pluto’s moon.

Hailed as the Mother of Afro Futurism, she won the PEN American Center lifetime achievement award in writing.

But professional success never clouded her view of herself as the 10-year-old writer who was unsure if library-loving black kids like her would be allowed inside a bookstore.

Identifying as a writer helped her move beyond her crippling shyness and dyslexia. As she wrote in an autobiographical essay, "Positive Obsession":

I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear. Instead, I grew to be six feet tall. Boys in particular seemed to assume that I had done this growing deliberately and that I should be ridiculed for it as often as possible.

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.

She developed a lifelong habit of cheering herself on with motivational notes, writing them in her journals, on lined notebook paper, in day planners and on repurposed pages of an old wall calendar.

She held herself accountable by writing out demanding schedules to accompany her lofty, documented goals.

And though she wearied of the constant invitations to serve on literary panels devoted to science fiction writers of color, at which she’d be asked the same questions she’d answered dozens of times before, she was resolute about providing opportunities for young black writers … and readers, who found reflections of themselves in her characters. As she remarked in an interview with The New York Times

When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.

Her brand of science fictiona label she often tried to duck, identifying herself on her business card simply as “writer”serves as a lens for considering contemporary issues: sexual violence, gun violence, climate change, gender stereotypes, the problems of late-stage capitalism, the plight of undocumented immigrants, and, not least, racism.

She sidestepped utopian science fiction, believing that imperfect humans are incapable of  forming a perfect society. “Nobody is perfect," she told Vibe:

One of the things I've discovered even with teachers using my books is that people tend to look for 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' which always annoys the hell out of me. I'd be bored to death writing that way. But because that's the only pattern they have, they try to fit my work into it.

Learn more about the life and work of Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) here.

I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not.

This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months . Each of my novels does this.

So be it! I will find the way to do this. See to it! So be it! See to it!

My books will be read by millions of people!

I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood

I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops

I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons

I will help poor black youngsters go to college

I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself

I will hire a car whenever I want or need to.

I will travel whenever and wherever in the world that I choose

My books will be read by millions of people!

So be it! See to it!

via Austin Kleon

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.


Martin Amis Explains His Method for Writing Great Sentences

Why does Martin Amis writes sentences well? As a novelist, he naturally has a high degree of professional interest in the matter. But why does he write sentences so well? One might put forth the influence of his father Kingsley Amis, author of Lucky Jim, an enduring contender for the title of the funniest novel in the English language. But given how seldom one acclaimed novelist sires another — an event, in fact, nearly unheard of — the heritability of literary talent remains unknowable. As for the direct influence of Amis père on Amis fils, we can almost entirely rule it out: not only did Kingsley never encourage Martin to follow in his footsteps, only once did he offer any kind of writerly advice.

"We sat in high-bourgeois splendor, my father and I," writes the younger Amis in his memoir Experience, "having a pre-lunch drink and talking about his first published story, ‘The Sacred Rhino of Uganda’ (1932: he was ten)." The father-son dialogue runs as follows:

— It was awful in all the usual ways. And full of false quantities. Things like: ‘Raging and cursing in the blazing heat …’

— What’s wrong with that? I mean I can see it’s old fashioned …

— You can’t have three ings like that.

— Can’t you?

— No. It would have to be: ‘Raging and cursing in the … intolerable heat.’

You couldn’t have three ings like that. And sometimes you couldn’t even have two. The same went for -ics, -ives, -lys and -tions. And the same went for all prefixes too.

43 years later, Martin Amis would find himself in the role of literary advice-giver, delivering his father's principle of writing onstage at the Chicago Humanities Festival. The process of imbuing every sentence with "minimum elegance and euphony," he says in the clip above (drawn from a longer interview viewable here) involves "saying the sentence, subvocalizing it in your head until there's nothing wrong with it. This means not repeating in the same sentence suffixes and prefix. If you've got a confound, you can't have a conform. If you've got invitation, you can't have execution. You can't repeat those, or an -ing, or a -ness: all that has to be one per sentence. I think the prose will give a sort of pleasure without you being able to tell why."

Clearly writing a sentence that has "nothing wrong with it" goes well beyond adhering to the rules of spelling and grammar. And even after you've eliminated all ungainly repetition, you may still have considerable work to do before the sentence rises to a standard worth upholding. There are other questions to ask: do you, for example, truly possess each and every one of the words you've used, not just in meaning but sound and rhythm? In order to do so, Amis recommends acquainting yourself more intimately with the dictionary and thesaurus. If all this makes the task of the aspiring writer sound needlessly daunting, follow instead the much simpler advice Amis provides in the clip just above: "Get to the end of the novel, then worry, because you've got something in front of you that you can work on. Save the anxiety for the end."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why James Baldwin’s Writing Stays Powerful: An Artfully Animated Introduction to the Author of Notes of a Native Son

Every writer hopes to be survived by his work. In the case of James Baldwin, the 32 years since his death seem only to have increased the relevance of the writing he left behind. Consisting of novels, essays, and even a children's book, Baldwin's body of work offers different points of entry to different readers. Many begin with with Go Tell it on the Mountain, the semi-autobiographical debut novel in which he mounts a critique of the Pentecostal Church. Others may find their gateway in Baldwin's fictional treatment of desire and love under adverse circumstances: among men in Paris in Giovanni's Room, for example, or teenagers in Memphis in If Beale Street Could Talk. But unlike most novelists, Baldwin's name continues to draw just as many accolades — if not more of them — for his nonfiction.

Those looking to read Baldwin's essays would do well to start with his first collection of them, 1955's Notes of a Native Son. In assembling pieces he originally published in magazines like Harper's and the Partisan Review, the book reflects the importance to the young Baldwin of what would become the major themes of his career, like race and expatriate life.

Though resident at different times in Turkey, Switzerland, and (right up until his dying day) France, he never took his eyes off his homeland of the United States of America for long. Nor, in fact, did the United States of America take its eyes off him. "Over the course of the 1960s," says Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer in the animated TED-Ed introduction to Baldwin above, "the FBI amassed almost 2,000 documents" as they investigated his background and activities.

That the U.S. government saw Baldwin as so politically dangerous is reason enough to read his books. But as one of America's most prominent men of letters, he could hardly be written off as a simple firebrand. Though known for his incisive views of white and black America, he believed that everyone, whatever their race, "was inextricably enmeshed in the same social fabric," that "people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them." As he found receptive audiences for his arguments in print and on television, "his faculty with words led the FBI to view him as a threat." But that very faculty with words — inseparable, as in all the greatest essayists, from the astuteness of the perceptions they express — has assured him a still-growing readership in the 21st century. Contending with the most volatile social and political issues of his time certainly didn't lower Baldwin's profile, but any given page of his prose suggests that whatever he'd chosen to write about, we'd still be reading him today.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Why Should We Read Melville’s Moby-Dick? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is a major 19th epic and a “Great American Novel” that routinely appears on best-of-all-time lists next to Homer and Dante. This grand literary judgment descends from early 20th century critics who rescued the novel from obscurity after decades of scorn and neglect. When the book first appeared in 1851, no one knew what to make of Melville’s cosmic whaling revenge tale. Reviews were highly mixed, sales dismal, the book flopped.

This Moby-Dick revival happened to coincide with a period of modernist experimentation with narrative structure in the work of writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Suddenly, Moby-Dick didn’t seem so strange anymore. More like a brilliant, proto-modernist tragedy. But if you expect straightforward seafaring adventure, as the animated TED-Ed lesson above by Sascha Morrell points out, it’s a hard slog. The exhaustive lessons on whales and whaling, chapter-length soliloquies, language so dense, colorful, and allusive.... Leonard Woolf became so frustrated in a 1929 review, he called the book's prose “the most execrable English."

Melville wrote bad sentences, Woolf pronounced. “His second greatest vice is rant or rhetoric…. I cannot see the slightest point in this kind of bombast, and, when it raves on for page after page, I almost pitch the book into the waste-paper basket and swear that I will not read another line, however many people vouch for the author’s genius.” This contrarianism sounds an awful like Virginia Woolf’s take on Joyce’s Ulysses. Like that book, Moby-Dick inspires widespread guilt among those who have been told they should read it, but who can’t bring themselves to finish or even begin.

Who was right: Melville’s early critics and readers (and Leonard Woolf)? Or the millions who have since seen in the novel something profound and prophetic, though no one can say exactly what that is? Why should we read Moby-Dick? For many, many reasons, but most of all the language. The word “rich” doesn’t begin to describe the layering of images: “A mountain separating two lakes,” Morrell says in a striking example, “a room papered floor to ceiling with bridal satins, the lid of an immense snuff box. These seemingly unrelated images take us on a tour of a sperm whale’s head.”

The symbols themselves invite us into other cryptic allegories. Chapter 99, “The Doubloon,” competes with Achilles' shield in The Iliad for metaphoric density, yet like a modernist novel, it fragments into multiple perspectives, each one examining ideas of currency, conquest, myth, ritual, etc., as Ahab bullies and provokes the crew into interpreting a coin nailed to the Pequod’s mast.

If the White Whale be raised, it must be in a month and a day, when the sun stands in some one of these signs. I’ve studied signs, and know their marks; they were taught me two score years ago, by the old witch in Copenhagen. Now, in what sign will the sun then be? The horse-shoe sign; for there it is, right opposite the gold. And what’s the horse-shoe sign? The lion is the horse-shoe sign- the roaring and devouring lion. Ship, old ship! my old head shakes to think of thee.

What Woolf saw as excessive bombast seems to me more like form mirroring function. Melville writes sentences that must echo over the squalls and talk through maddening lulls that bring on strange hallucinations. Like Joyce’s, his language mirrors the discursive tics of Ahab and Ishmael's modes of thought—nautical, theological, political, sociological, mythic, historic, naturalist, symbolist: explorations into a bloody, cruel, ecologically devastating enterprise that drives its demented captain—violently obsessed with a great white beast that has crippled and enraged him—to wreck the ship and kill everyone aboard except our narrator.

Learn about Melville and Moby-Dick in the additional resources at the TED-Ed lesson page.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Haruki Murakami Will Host a Radio Show & Help Listeners “Blow Away Some of the Corona-Related Blues”

Image by Ilana Simon

Characters in Haruki Murakami’s books see emotions in colors and hear them in sounds—the sounds, specifically, of The Beatles, Shostakovich, Sarah Vaughan, and thousands more folk, pop, rock, classical, and jazz artists in the novelist’s immense record collection. We must occasionally suspend some disbelief as readers, not only in the fantastic elements in Murakami’s work, but in characters who seem to know almost as much as the author does about music, who are always ready with references to deep cuts. Murakami “is not (quite) a musician,” writes Dre Dimura at Flypaper, “but he has a greater command of music as an art form than most musicians I know, myself included. How is that possible?”

Dimura’s explanation touches on aspects of Murakami’s life we’ve covered before at Open Culture: his longstanding passion for jazz, and time spent as the owner of a jazz bar before he became a novelist; his penchant for listening to music in his study for hours and hours on end as he undertakes his marathon writing sessions.

Murakami has not only shared his encyclopedic musical knowledge through fictional characters; he also hopes to turn his massive collection of approximately 10,000 records into a public archive, along with all his books and papers: “a place,” he says, “of open international exchanges for literature and culture.”

Four decades after his jazz club days, Murakami again became a DJ in 2018 when he took to the airwaves to play several 55-minute sets called Murakami Radio on Tokyo FM. Now, amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of COVID-19 lockdowns, he will again play records for his fans in Japan on a show this Friday called Stay Home Special. “I’m hoping that the power of music can do a little to blow away some of the corona-virus related blues that have been piling up.”

Murakami isn’t being Pollyannish about the “power of music.” The phrase may be cliché, but fans know from reading his books how music plays a significant role in even the most mundane of social interactions, the kind we’d come to take for granted before the virus spread around the world. The author offers music as a friendly overture. In a characteristic image, he wrote before his first radio broadcast in 2018:

It has been my hobby to collect records and CDs since my childhood, and thanks to that, my house is inundated with such things. However, I have often felt a sense of guilt toward the world while listening to such amazing music and having a good time alone. I thought it may be good to share such good times with other people while chatting over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee.

Though he’s been characterized as a novelist of isolation, and is “regarded as a recluse in Japan,” Murakami sees the need to make deep connections these days. And he recognizes music’s power to create shared emotional spaces, the kind of thing it seems so hard to find in our new fragmented, quarantined lives.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Shakespeare and Company Project Digitizes the Records of the Famous Bookstore, Showing the Reading Habits of the Lost Generation

Great writers don’t come out of nowhere, even if some of them might end up there. They grow in gardens tended by other writers, readers, editors, and pioneering booksellers like Sylvia Beach, founder and proprietor of Shakespeare and Company. Beach opened the English-language shop in Paris in 1919. Three years later, she published James Joyce’s Ulysses, “a feat that would make her—and her bookshop and lending library—famous,” notes Princeton University’s Shakespeare and Company Project. (Infamous as well, given the obscenity charges against the novel in the U.S.)

Just as the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl put Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights at the center of the Beat movement, so Joyce’s masterpiece made Shakespeare and Company a destination for aspiring Modernists.

The shop was already “the meeting place for a community of expatriate writers and artists now known as the Lost Generation.” Along with Joyce, there gathered Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein, all of whom not only bought books but borrowed them and left a handwritten record of their reading habits.

Through a large-scale digitization project of the Sylvia Beach papers at Princeton, the Shakespeare and Company Project will “recreate the world of the Lost Generation. The Project details what members of the lending library read and where they lived, and how expatriate life changed between the end of World War I and the German Occupation of France.” During the thirties, Beach began to cater more to French-speaking intellectuals. Among later logbooks we’ll find the names Aimé Césaire, Jacques Lacan, and Simone de Beauvoir. Beach closed the store for good in 1941, the story goes, rather than sell a Nazi officer a copy of Finnegans Wake.

Princeton’s “trove of materials reveals, among other things," writes Lithub, "the reading preferences of some of the 20th century’s most famous writers," it's true. But not only are there many famous names; the library logs also record “less famous but no less interesting figures, too, from a respected French physicist to the woman who started the musicology program at the University of California.” Shakespeare and Company became the place to go for thousands of French and expat patrons in Paris during some of the city's most legendarily literary years.

“English-language books are expensive,” if you’ve arrived in the city in the 1920s, the Project explains—"five to twenty times the price of French books.” English-language holdings at other libraries are limited. Readers, and soon-to-be famous writers, go to Shakespeare and Company to borrow a copy of Moby Dick or pick up the latest New Yorker.

You find Shakespeare and Company on a narrow side street, just off the Carrefour de l’Odéon. You step inside. The room is filled with books and magazines. You recognize a framed portrait of Edgar Allan Poe. You also recognize a few framed Whitman manuscripts. Sylvia Beach, the owner, introduces herself and tells you that her aunt visited Whitman in Camden, New Jersey and saved the manuscripts from the wastebasket. Yes, this is the place for you.

The lending library had different membership plans (you can learn about them here) and kept careful records with codes indicating the status of each borrower. These records are still being digitized and the Project is ongoing. It does not officially launch until next month. But at the moment, you can: "Search the lending library membershipBrowse the lending library cardsRead about joining the lending libraryDownload a preliminary export of Project data. In June, you will be able to search and browse the lending library's books, track the circulation of your favorite novels—and discover new ones.”

See how these literary communities shaped and reshaped themselves around what would become “the most famous bookstore in the world.”

via Lithub

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

William Blake Illustrates Mary Wollstonecraft’s Work of Children’s Literature, Original Stories from Real Life (1791)

Most of us know Mary Wollstonecraft as the author of the 1792 pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and as the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Fewer of us may know that two years before she published her foundational feminist text, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a pro-French Revolution, anti-monarchy argument that first made her famous as a writer and philosopher. Perhaps far fewer know that Wollstonecraft began her career as a published author in 1787 with Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (though she had yet to raise children herself), a conduct manual for proper behavior.

A hugely popular genre during the first Industrial Revolution, conduct manuals bore a miscellaneous character, inculcating a battery of middle-class rules, beliefs, and affectations through a mix of pedagogy, allegory, domestic advice, and devotional writing. Young women were instructed in the proper way to dress, eat, pray, laugh, love, etc., etc.

It may seem from our perspective that a radical firebrand like Wollstonecraft would shun this sort of thing, but her moralizing was typical of middle-class women of her time, even of pioneering writers who supported revolutions and women’s political and social equality.

Wollstonecraft’s assumptions about class and character come into relief when placed against the views of another famous contemporary, far more radical figure, William Blake, who was then a struggling, mostly obscure poet, printer, and illustrator in London. In 1791, he received a commission to illustrate a second edition of Wollstonecraft’s third book, a follow-up of sorts to her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters. The 1788 work—Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness—is a more focused book, using a series of vignettes woven into a frame story.

The two children in the narrative, 14-year-old Mary and 12-year-old Caroline, receive lessons from their relative Mrs. Mason, who instructs them on a different virtue and moral failing in each chapter by using stories and examples from nature. The two pupils “are motherless,” notes the British Library, “and lack the good habits they should have absorbed by example. Mrs. Mason intends to rectify this by being with them constantly and answering all their questions.” She is an all-knowing governess who explains the world away with a philosophy that might have sounded particularly harsh to Blake’s ears.

For example, in the chapter on physical pain, Mary is stung by several wasps. Afterward, her guardian begins to lecture her “with more than usual gravity.”

I am sorry to see a girl of your age weep on account of bodily pain; it is a proof of a weak mind—a proof that you cannot employ yourself about things of consequence. How often must I tell you that the Most High is educating us for eternity?... Children early feel bodily pain, to habituate them to bear the conflicts of the soul, when they become reasonable creatures. This is say, is the first trial, and I like to see that proper pride which strives to conceal its sufferings…. The Almighty, who never afflicts but to produce some good end, first sends diseases to children to teach them patience and fortitude; and when by degrees they have learned to bear them, they have acquired some virtue.

Blake likely found this line of reasoning off-putting, at the least. His own poems “were not children’s literature per se,” writes Stephanie Metz at the University of Tennessee’s Romantic Politics project, “yet their simplistic language and even some of their content responds to the characteristics of didactic fiction and children’s poetry.” Blake wrote expressly to protest the ideology found in conduct manuals like Wollstonecraft’s: “He calls attention to society’s abuse of children in a number of different ways, showing how society corrupts their inherent innocence and imagination while also failing to care for their physical and emotional needs.”

For Blake, children’s big emotions and active imaginations made them superior to adults. “Several of his poems,” Metz writes, “show the ways in which children’s innate nature has already been tainted by their parents and other societal forms of authority, such as the church.” Given his attitudes, we can see why “modern interpreters of the illustrations for Original Stories have detected a pictorial critique” in Blake’s rendering of Wollstonecraft’s text, as the William Blake Archive points out. Blake “appears to have found her morality too calculating, rationalistic, and rigid. He represents Wollstonecraft’s spokesperson, Mrs. Mason, as a domineering presence.”

Nonetheless, as always, Blake’s work is more than competent. The style for which we know him best emerges in some of the prints. We see it, for example, in the chiseled face, bulging eyes, and well-muscled arms of the standing figure above. For the most part, however, he keeps in check his exuberant desire to celebrate the human body. “Only a year earlier,” writes Brain Pickings, “Blake had finished printing and illuminating the first few copies of his now-legendary Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Two of the songs “were inspired by Wollstonecraft’s translation of C.G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality, for which Blake had done several engravings.”

If he had misgivings about illustrating Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories, we must infer them from his illustrations. But placing Blake’s most famous book of poetry next to Wollstonecraft’s pious, didactic works of moral instruction produces some jarring contrasts, showing how two towering literary figures from the time (though not both at the time) conceived of childhood, social class, education, and morality in vastly different ways. Learn more about Blake's illustrations at Brain Pickings, read an edition of Wollstonecraft's Original Stories here, and see all of Blake's illustrations at the William Blake Archive.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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