The Practice of Creativity

What’s Your Positive Obsession? Learning from Octavia Butler

Posted on: March 12, 2012

Last month’s ‘Love Your Creative Self’ series was a wonderful success. I had so much fun bringing together writers and artists to discuss how to nurture our creative lives. Later this spring, I’ll return to many of the themes raised in the series.

March is Women’s History Month and my intention is to honor it by discussing women writers whose work and lives have inspired me and others. I’m beginning with one of my favorite authors—Octavia Butler. Butler was one of the most talented and celebrated speculative fiction writers of the 20th century. She overcame the odds against her gender, race and class background to become a successful author.

Annually I reread Butler’s insightful short essay ‘Positive Obsession’ that chronicles how she became a writer. The word obsession can have a negative connotation. It can mean that we have an unhealthy fascination with an object or situation. In this essay, however, she uses the term ‘positive obsession’ to indicate an approach that helped her realize her dreams:

“Obsession can be a useful tool if it’s positive obsession. Using it is like aiming carefully in archery.

I took archery in high school because it wasn’t a team sport. I liked other team sports, but in archery you did well or badly according to your own efforts. No one else to blame. I wanted to see what I could do. I learned to aim high. Aim above the target. Aim just there! Relax. Let it go. If you aimed right, you hit the bull’s-eye. I saw positive obsession as a way of aiming yourself, your life, at your chosen target. Decide what you want. Aim high. Go for it.

I wanted to sell a story. Before I knew how to type, I wanted to sell a story.” (from ‘Positive Obsession’ in Blood child and other stories)

She kept her focus on a publication goal through getting ripped off by an agent (who charged a “reading fee”), through getting up at 2am and writing before she went to work, through numerous rejections and even a creative writing teacher who asked her ‘Can’t you write anything normal?’ She sold her first story at age 23 and then nothing for another five years. Then she sold Kindred, her first novel.

Understanding what compels us to do creative work is useful self-awareness. Try answering the following:

What is your positive obsession? Is it finishing a longer piece? Selling it? Winning a writing award? Studying with a famous teacher? Writing in several different genres?

What creative work do you most want to share with the world?

How do you support your positive obsession (Butler talks about the importance of taking writing classes and joining writing groups)?

Record your answers and keep them close to where you create. Use them as fuel to keep you going when you encounter obstacles in pursuing your goals.

(Photo credit: image obtained from


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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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