Start writing when you are at your best - Toni Morrison | Sunday Observer

Start writing when you are at your best - Toni Morrison

16 January, 2022
Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, an author of more than a dozen novels, is the only African American writer to have received the Nobel Prize for literature. The announcement of her 1993 award cited her as a writer “who, in novels characterised by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality”.

In her acceptance speech Morrison emphasised the importance of language “Partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as an agency – as an act with consequences”

Among Morrison’s best novels are ‘Beloved’, ‘The Bluest Eye’, ‘Tar Baby’, ‘Song of Solomon,’ ‘Beloved’ and ‘A Mercy’. The central theme of them is the Black American experience; in an unjust society, her characters struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity.

Her use of fantasy, her sinuous poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic give her stories great strength and texture. And she was one of the rare American authors whose books were both critical and commercial successes.

Tony Morrsion died on August 5, 2019 at the age of 88. The following quotes on her art of fiction are excerpted from Paris Review interview done by Claudia Brodsky Lacour and Elissa Schappell.

I’m a morning writer

Writing before dawn began (for me) as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn’t know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits . . . I didn’t know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy.

I was involved in writing ‘Beloved’ at that time—this was in 1983—and eventually I realised that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning. The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.

Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard—but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write.

I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, well, that’s a ritual.

And I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular. Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, what does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

My ideal writing routine

I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, sweet thing, there she was.

But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out—life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in.

I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.

I write with a pencil

I write with a pencil…. I do that (on a word processor) also, but that is much later when everything is put together. I type that into a computer and then I begin to revise. But everything I write for the first time is written with a pencil, maybe a ballpoint if I don’t have a pencil. I’m not picky, but my preference is for yellow legal pads and a nice number two pencil…. I remember once trying to use a tape recorder, but it doesn’t work.

My difficulty

The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said, which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on? So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.

Revising 6-7 times

To reach the final stage of a paragraph I’ve revised six times, seven times, thirteen times. But there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death. It is important to know when you are fretting it; when you are fretting it because it is not working, it needs to be scrapped.

Important to get a great editor

Good editors are really the third eye. Cool. dispassionate. They don’t love you or your work; for me that is what is valuable—not compliments. Sometimes it’s uncanny; the editor puts his or her finger on exactly the place the writer knows is weak but just couldn’t do any better at the time.

Or perhaps the writer thought it might fly, but wasn’t sure. Good editors identify that place and sometimes make suggestions.

Some suggestions are not useful because you can’t explain everything to an editor about what you are trying to do.

I couldn’t possibly explain all of those things to an editor, because what I do has to work on so many levels.

But within the relationship if there is some trust, some willingness to listen, remarkable things can happen. I read books all the time that I know would have profited from not a copy editor but somebody just talking through it.

And it is important to get a great editor at a certain time, because if you don’t have one in the beginning, you almost can’t have one later. If you work well without an editor, and your books are well received for five or ten years, and then you write another one—which is successful but not very good—why should you then listen to an editor?