Novelist, editor, essayist, and teacher, Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner, Toni Morrison is a beloved writer who frequently shared her thoughts on writing. In a story called, “You Don’t Know Anything,” for Lit Hub, Emily Temple gathered some of her thoughts, which I share here since today, February 18, is Toni’s birthday:
Write what you want to read:
I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that
kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most
undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed
seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as
props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well,
I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” — from a 2014 NEA Arts Magazine
Figure out how you work best.
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 — from a 1993 Paris Review interview
Use the world around you.
Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings . . .
everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a
menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When
I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind
for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder — from O Magazine
Let characters speak for themselves.
I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their
memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re
writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very
much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they
are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see.
It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a
listener, put in all of the details. — from a 2014 NEA Arts Magazine
It’s that being open—not scratching for it, not digging for it, not
constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting
that what you don’t know will be available to you. It is bigger than
your overt consciousness or your intelligence or even your gifts; it
is out there somewhere and you have to let it in. — from O Magazine
Don’t read your work out loud until it’s finished.
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 — from a 1993 Paris Review
Beware of overworking.
Those [paragraphs] that need reworking I do as long as I can. I mean
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. — from Paris Review
As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve
done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize
failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it
is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s
rewriting and editing.
Bravo, Toni! Great advice as we all write on!
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