Christopher Caldwell Tells Some Octavian Truth

Christopher Caldwell received the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship the very first year we gave it out. Here’s what he can say about what that was like:

I read Parable of the Sower when I was sixteen. I was a queer, precocious teen struggling with faith in Los Angeles and here was a strange, precocious, teen narrator struggling with faith in a fictional Los Angeles suburb in the near future. It wasn’t so much that I felt seen by the work as the realization that stories like mine were also worth telling. Until that point, my writing had mostly been imitative of what I thought great literature should be: white protagonists, heterosexual relationships, middle class agita unconcerned with the hows and whys of the status quo. Kindred had cracked the world open for me a year before, and Parable drove a wedge into that crack. I wanted to be more authentically me on the page and in my life.

I read a lot. And I wrote a lot, much of it pretty terrible. But I kept up with Ms. Butler’s career, and bought her latest books as soon as they came out. I listened and tried to internalize advice from “Furor Scribendi” and “Positive Obsession,” essays she had written about writing. My twin mantras became “forget talent” and “persist.”

I knew that she sometimes taught at Clarion West and Clarion workshops, and I assured myself that one day, when I felt good enough, I would apply during a year that she taught. That day never came, because she passed away in 2006, far too young. The grief you have for someone you have never met is a strange thing. But I promised myself the next year I would apply.

In 2007, I did apply. I could only afford one application, and I picked Clarion West because Samuel R. Delany was teaching. I didn’t think I would be accepted. I didn’t know how I could afford it if I was accepted. I didn’t know how I would take six weeks off from my terrible, high stress, low paying job. I was working nights and writing in that gap in the afternoon until it was time for me to return to work again. I didn’t even know if it was any good, but I told myself to stop worrying about talent and persist.

I was accepted. And I was elated. I didn’t know how I’d afford it. Then a second call came through, congratulations, you’re one of the first recipients of the Octavia E. Butler scholarships. I didn’t care then how I would take the six weeks off. I had to go. It felt like a calling. I’m not a superstitious person, but this felt as much like a sign as anything. I was enough, imperfect as I was and remain, to be chosen to receive this honor in the name of the writer I respected most in all the world.

The workshop was hard. I cried more than once. “Forget talent.” “Persist.” I did both and I turned in a story every week, sometimes staying up for 20 or more hours to do so. I felt I owed my best effort, and I gave it.

There’s a lot people can tell you about the workshop experience. For some people it helps them understand new ways to work, others value the connections and networks they develop. Some people blossom, others stop writing. But for me, receiving the scholarship and attending the workshop was sort of a contract. I must persist.

I’ve kept writing. I’ve kept giving my best. I’ve kept trying to bring something true and authentic to the world, even if it’s dressed up in lies, which, after all, is the business of fiction. I hope, without expectation, that something I write will crack the world open for some queer, brown teenager the way Kindred and Parable of the Sower cracked the world open for me. But the hope exists because I was honored and trusted with the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.