This week, writers have been mesmerized by an unearthed piece of writing by beloved and brilliant novelist Octavia Butler, on display from the Huntington Library. This scrawled notebook page is a manifesto in the truest sense of the word, in that it predated much of the reality Butler ended up making manifest — concluding with the refrain “So be it! See to it!” and including the exhortation, “I will find the way to do this.”
I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not. This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months <at least two>. Each of my novels does this. So be it! I will find the way to do this. See to it! So be it! See to it! My books will be read by millions of people! I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons I will help poor black youngsters go to college I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself I will hire a car whenever I want or need to. I will travel whenever and wherever in the world that I choose My books will be read by millions of people! So be it! See to it!
What I particularly love about Butler’s manifesto is that it’s not just about what she will achieve for herself, but also about what she will be able to contribute to the lives of others, including her family and “poor black youngsters.” In her lifetime, Butler achieved much of what she dreamed up. And with the will to write a manifesto like that, why shouldn’t she have?
Thinking about Butler’s words made me consider what other writers tell themselves. There’s plenty of documentation out there of what writers tell other people: their students, beginning scribblers, and assorted dreamers looking for wisdom. But their manifestos to themselves tend to be a little less touchy-feely and a little more, well, bracing.
For instance, I’ve always appreciated that Henry Miller had a more straightforward, day-by-day motivational checklist, that also reads as a message and motivation to himself:
1. Work on one thing at a time until finished. 2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to “Black Spring.” 3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand. 4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time! 5. When you can’t create you can work. 6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers. 7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it. 8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only. 9. Discard the Program when you feel like it-but go back to it the next day.Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude. 10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing. 11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
Going further back, we find Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who would walk around repeating his own name to himself in silence until he manifested his way to clarity, a state he described as being beyond death :
A kind of walking trance I have frequently had, quite up from boyhood, when I have been all alone. This has often come upon me through repeating my own name to myself silently till, all at once, as it were, out of the intensity of the consciousness of individuality, the individuality itself seemed to dissolve and fade away into boundless being; and this not a confused state, but the clearest of the clearest, the surest of the surest, the weirdest of the weirdest, utterly beyond words, where death was an almost laughable impossibility, the loss of personality (if so it were) seeming no extinction, but the only true life.
Contemporary writer Helen Simpson told the Guardian that she has an even simpler manifesto to herself, borrowed from none other than Gustave Flaubert:
The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”
I like this for its directness as well as its throwback to Flaubert. It reminds me of what Jennifer Weiner often tells writers: the rule is “butt in chair.”
Above my desk, I have a postcard in French that I bought years ago in Paris. It translates as: “If you see a blank page, why not write a word?” I tried to make that one into a manifesto. I also have a slip of paper that says, “Climb mountains so that you can see the world, not so the world sees you.” But these might be less effective than, “Sarah, get your butt into the chair and finish that story. So be it! See to it! No socializing until you’re done.” After all, all of life’s distractions (“You have ten Twitter notifications”) are in fact talking to me, so the manifesto has to be a counterweight to that.
Thank you, Octavia Butler, for reminding us of that and so much more.