When asked by her students to share one final lesson on writing, Francine Prose replied: “The most important things (are) observations and consciousness. Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see, ask yourself what it means.” As writers and as writing students we should take this advice to heart. We often hear the words: “Write what you know.” This is basically another way of saying that. Prose is saying write what you know but she is also saying think critically about what you know and what you think you know. In order to write, we need to truly know what we’re writing about. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Octavia Butler makes it a point to know what she’s writing about. Not only does she clearly research the past and incorporate what she has learned about that distant time and place into her novel but she also incorporates her own experience and feelings into it. In Kindred, The Storm (page 191), Butler writes: “Rufus’s time demanded things of me that had never been demanded before, and it could easily kill me if I did not meet its demands. That was a stark, powerful reality that the gentle conveniences and luxuries of this house, of now, could not touch.”
Butler’s working knowledge of the past and the present (1976: Dana’s present and Butler’s) is profound. She shares what she knows about both settings and she incorporates her own raw human emotion so that we can be right there with her, feeling with her. I believe this is what makes great writers—the ability to emotionally connect the story to its readers.
Prose also says: “I told my class that we should, ideally, have some notion of whom or what a story is about—in other words, as they say so often in workshops, whose story is it? To offer a reader that simple knowledge, I said, wasn’t really giving much. A little clarity of focus costs the writer nothing and paid off.”
In Kindred, Olivia Butler never loses sight of whom and what her story is about. Dana’s journey, the people and places she encounters, and the lessons she learns along the way are not simply revealed but they are carried throughout the whole novel and interlocked thematically. We can’t lose sight of things which are always there and which stay with us as we turn each page.
Butler does not write for the sake of writing or give us anything that isn’t critical to the story’s progression. Every element she shares has a purpose. As a student who is studying Butler, I’d love to know if this is something that comes naturally to her or if it’s a product of stringent editing. My gut tells me it’s probably a combination of the two and as I nurture my craft that gives me hope.
When I write I often get lost in the writing and I sometimes lose track of the big picture. Sometimes I don’t even see the big picture until I’m editing. Because of that, I often have a lot to chop. Chopping these days isn’t as painful as it used to be (these days I think of editing like getting a haircut—if the ends are dead, why keep them?). Back when chopping was more painful, I used to keep a growing list of my chopped lines and phrases. I didn’t want to throw them away altogether so instead I saved them so that I could later turn to them if and when I felt stuck in a story. I stopped doing that because I realized it was holding me back. Those words and sentences were cut for a reason. Recycling is great for the environment but I’m not so sure the same can be said about recycling words or relationships. In my opinion, it’s better to say goodbye for good to an old flame (or old words and sentences in this case) instead of holding on and hoping he or she might eventually be right for a friend.
As with most things in life, my writing is getting better with practice and, of course, reading the work of other writers helps too. By studying novels like Kindred and paying close attention to such masterpieces and deconstructing them with the help of the lectures and lessons, I’m learning the importance of the big picture and how that concept relates back to my own writing. It’s not just about telling a story, manifesting themes and communicating messages. It’s also about creating something—not just a sum of parts, but rather something whole—that delivers on its promise and ties all the pieces together without leaving anything important out or stuffing anything irrelevant in.