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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Octavia Butler, June 22, 1947-February 24, 2006, zikhronah livrakhah

She was one of my heroes. She wrote the real stuff, the stuff that shakes you, gently but deeply, leaves you different than you were going in.

I came to CW 2001 largely because she would be teaching (the first week!) and I was not disappointed. She had an enormous grace and dignity and power. It wasn't the power of personality -- you could tell that, as a personality, she'd just as well say nothing. You could tell how quiet and introverted she was, but she spoke, for us. She wasn't like me -- I talk your ear off, out of a sense of entitlement -- it occurs to me only belatedly, upon reflection, that you might have something else to do than listen. Octavia spoke, as far as I could tell, out of a sense of honor and courage -- she could see that no one else was going to be able to say what she had to say the way she could, and she was too much of a mensch to turn away from her duty.

She was wickedly funny in a dry way that you could miss if you weren't paying attention. She was unfailingly courteous and kind. I think Brad Denton (2nd week) found us a little wild at times, Nalo (3rd week) found us almost sufficiently wild, and Connie Willis (4th week) would holler at us, in her fifth-grade-teacher voice, to "Settle Down!" -- but we didn't pull anything with Octavia, I can tell you. Not because we imagined that she would chide us (she wouldn't have) nor because we thought she might be wounded (ha! like we could wound her!), but because her dignity filled the room. You had the sense of what a crime it was to waste this life, to waste whatever God had given you.

In critique, she was both unfailingly gentle and principledly ruthless. Again you got the sense of two Octavias speaking -- the ordinary one, who knew acutely what it was to feel pain, and wished you not an ounce -- and the extraordinary one, the outsized courage and wisdom and skill that had grown in her by virtue of her being unwilling to refuse it, unwilling to shut up about it, and which would speak.

She said things that were short and true. About my first story, "Embracing-the-New", she said, "I wouldn't change this too much", and she was right -- I did change it too much, and eventually had to change it back. About my career, she said, "it's time for you to write novels," and she's still right, and I'm still trying to get there. I could use your courage, Octavia.

I'm so sorry I'll never see her again. I was always hoping I would.

Goodbye, my hero.

Crossposted from the Clarion West alumni forum.

cf. wikipedia, obit

Posted by benrosen at February 28, 2006 09:03 AM | Up to blog

Thank you for this entry, Ben. I'm still torn up about her passing, and the fact that I'll never get to meet her, and it helps to read appreciations by people who knew her.

I applied to Clarion that year for the same reason you did -- Octavia Butler was teaching! Alas, I was not chosen to go that year. She remains my favorite writer and a huge influence on my own work. I never knew her, but I'll miss her all the same.

Posted by: Heather Shaw at February 28, 2006 05:35 PM
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