I just finished reading Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild and Other Stories.” I’ve read “Bloodchild” several times as I work on my own short stories. But there is something special about reading the collection. Butler, a confessed novelist, but her short stories are masterfully clear, engaging, concise and impactful. She relays the most graphic and disturbing content as if they were announcements in a pew bulletin.
Butler also wrote with freedom. She wasn’t bound by tropes, rigid structure or “approved” content. She wrote HER stories her way and waited for others to experience the brilliance.
Upon reflection, I can see the cowardice in my own writing. I write in anticipation of readers’ questions or desires. I spend a tremendous amount of time on description, backstory, and minutia that really don’t approach let alone advance the plot.
It’s like making pasta sauce, but letting your dinner guest pick the ingredients, proportions, and timing, whether they can cook or not. I can’t even imagine it! I don’t even let people IN my kitchen when I’m cooking, so I do I let strangers all up in my stories when I write?
In short, I’m not telling MY stories. I’m trying to get readers to affirm that I am a good writer –this is artistic cowardice at its finest.
Good writing is about the work, not the writer.
I regret not reading Octavia Butler earlier in life. But I am grateful for the opportunity to feast on the results of her talent, hard work, and the ZERO fucks she gave when they tried to tell her what should be in her sauce.
So, I drove to Jackson, Miss. yesterday to get fingerprinted for work. It was a three-hour drive to the facility, and the fog was thick along the way. When I arrived, knitting in hand, I was surprised that the entire process took less than 10 minutes—not a single purl. Three hours of driving for a 10-minute appointment. Yep.
Not looking forward to spending three more hours in the car, I stopped at Eudora Welty’s House for a quick tour.
Standing before Eudora’s books, on Eudora’s sleeping porch, in Eudora’s house I saw the truth of my life.
It was so fascinating to be in the house of one of the writers who inspired me back in my college and grad school days. I wrote so much back then, but life slowly crept in, marinated in the constant reminder that “I couldn’t make a living as a writer.” Slowly but surely, I put down my pen and started using my computer for watching videos, online dating, and countless revisions to my resume.
But being in Eudora’s house…
I remember standing in Eudora’s living room listening to the docent talk about various pieces in the room and what they meant to a woman who left a mark so deep on my soul, I don’t remember anything I read by her, but I grew considerably while sitting at her knee.
Yet, I was anxious to get to the dining room. Then in the dining room, I couldn’t wait to get to the kitchen. I was disconnected. Removed from what was in front of me and, of course, this is how I live my life. Waiting for this to be over to get to the next thing. The next thing that may bring joy, happiness, or the chance to show society or whoever is watching, that I have value.
There in Eudora’s dining room, I forced myself to be present. I listened to her as she described how Eudora and her guests used the gigantic dictionary in the dining room to unravel dinner debates. I absorbed the beautiful, hand-painted Haviland china and the chest of drawers build for her father without a single nail. Marvelous. And of course, there were books. In the dining room bookcase, on the sideboard, and on the table. Everywhere.
Being in Eudora’s house brought it all back. The excitement and fearlessness that women writers have, which left untapped turns to bitterness. I started to see again. To feel all the beauty of being truly alive. For a moment, I had a taste of what it was like not to fret, to live boldly—excuses and caveats be damned! My fearlessness was still there—not quite suffocated.
Eudora Welty lived on her own terms. She wrote, painted, took pictures, gardened and cooked. She went to parties, gave lectures, and socialized with her famous friends. But at home alone, she sat in a comfy wing back chair next to large airy windows looking out on the street, and she read.
Thousands of books on shelves, on the sofa, in trinities on the floor in just about every room in the house.
There were more than 15,000 books in her house when she died. The historical society moved all the books she acquired after 1985 to the education center next door, yet the house vibrated with literature.
Upstairs, I had the great privilege of seeing a row upon row of her own novels in English, German, Japanese and many other languages. I wanted to weep. I felt thrilled at her accomplishment and ashamed that I had given up on my dreams and goals so easily because they didn’t come with a parade.
I gave it up for what was to be an easier path—consistent income and societal approval—conformity, a broken spirit, and debt. I gave up my dream for a safe path in modern America, and it has nearly killed me.
Standing before Eudora’s books, on Eudora’s sleeping porch, in Eudora’s house, I saw the truth of my life.
I left Eudora’s house with thoughts of writing, books, camellias, and scrubbing away the bitterness. I am to write.
BTW, The Welty House and Gardens are amazing!! I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the house for archival preservation reasons, but please visit if you get a chance. It is so worth it!!