“All good things must begin.”
—Octavia Butler, journal entry
Here is the inside cover of one of Octavia E. Butler’s commonplace books, from around 1988. She wrote herself many of these motivational notes, which can found in her archives at The Huntington.
That encouragement was probably essential: Butler faced a lot of challenges. She grew up black and poor in Pasadena, Calif., when legal segregation was dead, but de facto segregation was very much alive… In several interviews Butler said she wrote because she had two choices: write, or die. “If I hadn’t written, I probably would have done something stupid that would have led to my death,” she said cheerfully.
Looking at Butler’s notes I was reminded of the notebooks of another fiction writer, James Salter, who wrote all his novels by hand, but would start his notebooks with advice to himself on the inside flap:
This flap, from his notebook for his 1967 novel A Sport and a Pastime, has advice from André Gide:
Write as if this were your only book, your last book. Into it put everything you were saving—everything precious, every scrap of capital, every penny as it were. Don’t be afraid of being left with nothing.
His notebook from Light Years has the same advice: “SAVE NOTHING.”
“As always, you try to put everything you have in a book,” he said. “That is, don’t save anything for the next one. (The book of his uncollected writings is titled, Don’t Save Anything.)
(These images are from his collection in the Ransom Center.)
I always take comfort in the fact that even the great writers needed to pump themselves up to get to work.
Even if you don’t believe it or feel it 100%, it can be of great help to write down the things you want to be true about your life and work. (If you believe otherwise, why write?)
“Creative work is very hard,” wrote Sidney Lumet, in Making Movies, “and some sort of self-deception is necessary simply in order to start.”