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Saturday, October 22, 2005

Interesting day

I got a chance to see Octavia Butler today at the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Writer Conference sponsored by Chicago State University. She is an excellent speaker with a distinctive voice, but unfortunately the sound system didn't amplify properly and my seat distance muffled a lot of what was said. However, I did manage to glean a bit of knowledge, including the investment Ms. Butler puts into researching her novels. For example, when she wanted to learn about slavery in Maryland, she travelled by Greyhound bus from California to Maryland just to conduct research in a local library. She also told about her early experiences as a writer, which included rejections and learning her craft to become a better writer (she noted that a lot of "bestsellers" leave much to be desired by way of quality).

I haven't attended a lot of writers conferences, but I've noticed that at the ones I have attended, the question-answer session invariably has at least one or two wanna-be writers asking what inspires the writer to write. It occurs to me that they are hoping for an easy solution that can be given in a sentence or two, or that after hearing the guest writer speak, they will go home and a story will come tumbling out. But I can testify from personal experience that they won't receive an easy out just from talking to a published author or being in the same room with "greatness." Because inspiration is something that comes from within. It may be stimulated from the outside, but the desire, the verve, the need to write...that's all internal. A hopeful writer can go to a thousand conferences, buy hundreds of how-to-write books, listen to a million writers talk about their own experiences, but until that potential writer finds the story within himself or herself, it ain't happening.

I've come across blogs of wanna-be writers who bemoan the fact that day after day they sit down at the computer and still nothing comes to them. Unfortunately, their computers will remain blank slates as long as they are trying to start without that internal kick, that mental push that is necessary to write the story. Sometimes it just takes putting two sentences together and seeing where they'll lead. Walter Mosley got his start simply by writing a couple of sentences, which inspired him to write a few more.

When I began Again, my intent was to write a horror story. But as the words and sentences began forming, the story began to take me somewhere else. The sentences, then paragraphs began leading me toward an erotic, paranormal tale, and I was inspired to follow.

One interesting question that came out of today's session was from a young man who wanted to know how to avoid all the cliches rife in sci-fi fiction. Ms. Butler's response: there is no way to avoid cliches, because much out there has been told before. She advised that in order to be fresh, he find a different way to approach the same oft-told tales. Improving on the mousetrap, so to speak.

Another note: Ms. Butler is not a big fan of the dramatization of fiction. Someone asked whether any of her works had been optioned, and she emphatically said no, she would not go that route. The reason: the loss of the author's creative power over her own work. She noted that she had yet to see one story translated to the screen that wasn't subpar to the vision of the original work. When another questioner brought up's audio adaptation of Butler's Kindred, Ms. Butler stated that the adaptation had not been true to the story, so she wasn't entirely pleased with the production.

The issue reminded me of an interview given by Ursula LeGuin, in which she expressed her disappointment with the SciFi channel's adaption of Earthsea. She stated that so many liberties had been taken with the screenplay (a screenplay in which she had waived many of her creative rights) that it hardly resembled the original vision of her work. She especially noted that her dark characters had been whitewashed in a facile attempt to reach a wider, mainstream audience and that the change had been a betrayal to her by the producers, who had promised to be true to her work.

A final note from the conference: the issue of Ms. Butler's covers. As I had noted before in an earlier post, Ms. Butler's first editions featured white characters even though the protagonists were people of color. Again, this was an unfortunate attempt to fool potential white buyers into believing that they were reading stories about white characters. A very racist premise. Anyway, Ms. Butler indicated that she never had any control of her covers (which is the case for most writers). She mentioned one particular title, either Wild Seed or Mind of my Mind (I can't be sure because of the damnable sound system), where the cover artist tried to be true to the story and rendered a cover with a black character. The cover was nixed and the idea was pushed for a whitened version, but the artist protested, saying that the change would be "dishonest." So, instead a compromise was made, producing a cover version where the protagonist's fleshtone became a sort of green (at least that's how I heard it). I'm still looking for the .gif of the cover to be sure.

Despite the incovenience, it is always a pleasure to hear Ms. Butler speak. Next time though, I'll make sure to get a better seat.

Sharon Cullars Coffee Talk at 10/22/2005 04:33:00 PM Permanent Link     | | Home


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