A fantastic evening just floated to me on a soft summer breeze. Thanks to Nancy, my wonderful friend and writing group buddy, I had the pleasure of attending a reading by Toni Morrison. A triple threat, she’s won a Pulitzer, a Nobel, and a National Book Critics Circle Award. In her eighties, Toni is frail, but feisty. And she’s still writing!
Playing to a packed, enthusiastic audience, the author of Beloved read several long, lithesome passages from a work in progress. Looking over a sheaf of pages before she began, she commented: “Some of this is so-o-o good and some of it needs editing.” She added that reading aloud to an audience “gives me something I can’t get in any other way.”
In a brief Q&A session, Toni covered a lot of territory: She talked about her view of writing as “bearing witness” and the importance of the “engagement between the author, book, and reader so the reader also bears witness. It’s the surrender of the reader to the text that makes this a shared experience,” she added.
“I can’t teach vision,” Toni observed. “That leap into language is so personal, so different” for each person that you can’t teach it, you can only recognize it.’
A few tips on process: “If you don’t like to revise, you don’t like to write. Revision is writing,” Toni writes by hand on legal pads (love that, so do I!) because she likes the idea of being able to cross out, make arrows, and move things around. When you write this way, “language is becoming,” she noted; in contrast, when you write using a computer, everything looks neat, tidy, fixed, and complete even the first time around, which may discourage revision.
And finally, Toni isn’t overly fond of the classic image of the artist: alone, preferably poverty stricken, in a garret. While teaching at Princeton, she encouraged collaboration among writing students and artists in a variety of disciplines. Wonderful idea. Wonderful evening. Thanks, Nancy!