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This blog was featured on 08/07/2019
Toni Morrison on Writing, Reflections and Regrets
Written by
She Writes
August 2019
Written by
She Writes
August 2019

As fans mourn the death of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, who passed away August 5, 2019, we shed light on this American treasure and recognize her literary gifts, courage and strength.

* This post was originally published in February 2019. 

Toni Morrison, known for her rich collection of essays, novels, and articles on popular culture, is among the most celebrated writers of our time. She was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 for Beloved and again in 1993, when she became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 2012, President Obama bestowed to her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation's highest civilian honor. And last year, Oprah Winfrey presented her with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle.

With more than four decades of notable writing, Morrison confessed in an interview that her writing does not come quickly. Three years is the shortest time I have spent writing a book, most of them take six or seven,” she said.

But the time has now come for her wide range of fans, as The Source of Self-Regard debuted this month. Her latest book is divided into three parts: a prayer for those who lost their lives on 9/11; a searching meditation on Martin Luther King Jr.; and finally, a eulogy for American novelist James Baldwin who passed away in 1987. Within those sections, she has weaved commentary on social issues, from female empowerment and human rights to money and the media.  

She has been credited for the quote: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.” So with that, and an abundance of other inspiration to share about the acclaimed author, we rounded up some of her best insight and advice over the years.

On Imagery

''There are certain emotions that are useful for the construction of a text,'' she said, ''and some are too small. Anger is too tiny an emotion to use when you're writing, and compassion is too sloppy. Almost everything that makes you want to write, or feel like writing, is not useful in the act of writing. So it's the mediation between those two states, the compulsion and all those feelings, that make you compelled.''

What is useful, she said, are the images.

“The controlling image is useful,'' she said, ''because it determines the language that informs the text. Once I know what the shape of the scar is, once I know that there are two patches of orange in that quilt, then I can move. Once I have the controlling image, which can also work as the metaphor - that is where the information lodges. When I know where the white space is, when I know where the broad strokes are.''

This excerpt was originally published in the New York Times. Read the full interview here.

On Labels

Through the years, many authors have resented being labeled and cornered into a category such as “Jewish writer” or “Southern writer.” But for Morrison, she doesn’t mind it.

''I've decided to define that, rather than having it be defined for me,'' she said. ''In the beginning, people would say, 'Do you regard yourself as a black writer, or as a writer?' and they also used the word woman with it - woman writer. So at first I was glib and said I'm a black woman writer, because I understood that they were trying to suggest that I was 'bigger' than that, or better than that. I simply refused to accept their view of bigger and better. I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither. I really do. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.''

This excerpt was originally published in the New York Times. Read the full interview here.

On the same subject, one interviewer asked Morrison directly: “Are you a “black writer” or a “writer”?

"I am a 'black writer.' No hiding. It’s different," she said. “The quality, the music, the sound, the texture and the subject. James Baldwin, another famous black writer, wrote about black life, but it was distant, as though it were separate from him. Baldwin lived in New York, and if you were a writer and also black you didn’t get reviewed in the New York Times and you didn’t get positions in the universities. My first book to be reviewed in the New York Times was by someone who thought he was doing something beneath him by reviewing my book. That was The Bluest Eye. Since then a lot has changed, but, I have to say, when I won the Pulitzer there was some negativity in the press."

This excerpt was originally published on Alain Elkann Interviews. Read the full interview here.

On Motherhood and Writing

In a 2012 interview with The Guardian Morrison spoke about her early years as a writer and mom.

When she started The Bluest Eye she was the single mother of two boys, living in Syracuse, New York. She rose at 4am every morning to write before work. If she felt discouraged, she thought about her grandmother, who had fled the south with seven children and no means of support. Any existential panic – about her income, her prospects as a writer, her availability as a mother – evaporated in the face of daily necessity.

At one level, says Morrison, it was terrifically simple. "I was young. I started writing when I was 39. That's the height of life. The real liberation was the kids, because their needs were simple. One, they needed me to be competent. Two, they wanted me to have a sense of humour. And three, they wanted me to be an adult. No one else asked that of me. Not in the workplace – where sometimes they'd want you to be feminine, or dominant, or cute." She smiles. "The kids didn't care if I did my hair, didn't care what I looked like."

On Receiving the Nobel Prize

“I felt very representational, I felt American for probably the first time in my life, and I felt representative of all African Americans and I felt hugely a woman receiving this prize because that’s not too common in the halls of the Nobel alumni. So I felt all those things, knowing full well as one always does, that no prize has ever made it easier – you still have to look at that blank page.”

This excerpt was originally featured on an interview with Jana Wendt. Watch the full interview here.

On Looking Back

When asked if she looks back and admires her work, she commented that among the most rewarding is finding closure in her work.

“I am aware of what’s really beautiful – things that I think came off really well. And I’m also aware of the sentences that I have written that at last, I know how I should rewrite them… even long after the book has been published.”

This excerpt was originally featured on an interview with Jana Wendt. Watch the full interview here.

On Regret

Morrison, who is 87 years old, admits to using writing as a shield over the years, and now has the time to reflect on the issues that she’d once tucked away.

“Writing, for me, is the big protection,” she said. “But when I'm not creating or focusing on something I can imagine or invent, I think I go back over my life – I don't recommend this by the way – and you pick up, oh, what’d you do that for? Why didn't you understand this? Not just with children, as a parent but with other people, with friends. So, it's not profound regret. It's just a wiping up of tiny, little messes that you didn't recognize as a mess when they were going on.”

This excerpt was originally featured on NPR. Listen to the full interview here.

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