In Her Own Words: Toni Morrison on Writing, Editing, and Teaching
In 1979, the famed author gave a public reading and met with classes and student groups.
Note: This interview with writer Toni Morrison, who died on Aug. 5, 2019, was published in the Spring 1980 issue of the Alumnae Bulletin under the headline Two Major Events of the Year: The Visits of Writers Toni Morrison and Eudora Welty.
Morrison was on campus for two weeks in the fall of 1979 as the Lucy Martin Donnelly Fellow (Oct. 30-Nov 2; Nov. 13-16, 1979). As a Donnelly Fellow, she gave a public reading from Song of Solomon in Goodhart Hall (Nov. 1) and met with a number of classes and student groups. She returned to the College in 1984 to give the Convocation address.
You are involved in so many demanding activities: editing, teaching, writing, mothering. Are these conflicting enterprises?
They are not for me. Time is the problem, not the activities. Apparently it's a facility that I have to tune out the chaos and routine events if I'm thinking about the writing. I never have had sustained time to write, long periods or a week away to do anything—I never had that. So I would always write under conditions that probably are unbearable when people think of how one writes. I never applied to go to those wonderful artist retreats. My wish sometimes was that if someone would just take care of the children for a little while, then I wouldn't have to go any place: I could just stay where I was.
It has to do with what I feel about writer's block, which I take very seriously. The block comes when I don't understand what's happening in the writing, when the solution is not there yet. When it is there, then other things really fall away of their own accord. There is such a compulsion to it that anything else that I'm doing looks as though it's under water, and then there's this dazzling thing that I'm thinking or writing. And my effort is not to erase the conflict between editing and writing but to pay full attention to the editing and to pay full attention to the teaching, because if I'm really in stride, then I have to hang onto these other things. I don't think that I'm the kind of person who can write without that kind of mix.
I was going to ask you if you could ever imagine just writing.
No, never. I once went with a friend to the country, and we said we would just stay a week or two and write, and both of us brought back blank pieces of paper. I just looked at the deer, you know; nothing happened.
When I started working on a different schedule at Random House, there was a two-week period in there which was a little odd. I hadn't been home at that time of day for years. I didn't know what the mailman looked like, and the house had entirely different sounds. I was distracted by the place, which I was seeing for the first time—not a day off or a holiday, but a long period of being home regularly without having to travel from place to place, without having anything else to do. It was startling, and I didn't work at all.
You were talking in class about the course you have taught on black women writers, where there really aren't any secondary sources to go to. Do you find that being a writer yourself helps you teach this new writing better, makes you better able to guide the students?
Yes, that's a difficult thing to do though. I think it is beneficial to the students; I really do. But one thing that has interested me is how enormously timid the students are about risking any criticism on things where there are only primary sources. They talk an awful lot about pioneering criticism, but they are really unwilling to pass judgment on paper about a book that has only a few little reviews to examine. They don't mind having a body of work that they can respond to: secondary sources, criticism, a teacher's evaluation. But I was astounded that it took so long for them to feel willing to take risks in evaluating a book that they loved but hadn't heard anybody pass judgment on. But this is important for women because so much of what has already been written by women—even when it's Jane Austen—has been distorted, is awkward, so that they may have to not only rewrite, re-evaluate, revise what has already been said; there are whole areas in which they will have to do all of it because there may not be anybody else to do it. They might as well start now, and they might as well start in my class.
I just wanted them to distrust whatever there was available, and to distrust the novelist as well. Forget about what I say in an interview—it might be anything—but trust the tale and start with what you have. It was difficult to do that. I think that the fact that I'm a writer makes it attractive to me to work this way. I think that if I were simply or exclusively a teacher, I might not have found that valuable or a valuable way to think about something.
The problem was also to move into and around literary criticism. In a course like that, you have to spend so much time getting away from sociology. Whenever you have any subject about women, even if it's poetry, short stories, or whatever, half of it is always sociology or some other -ology before you get to simply see what is beautiful, and why, and what the criteria are, the criteria for that book.
When you teach aspiring writers, what do you think their biggest problems are?
Identifying error. Or identifying the bad writing that they do. The problem is, first, to know when you are not writing well and, then, to be able to fix it. It's craftsman-like problems.
I do not teach passion and vision and all of those big, wonderful things which are absolutely necessary for extraordinary writing: I have to assume that my students have vision, passion, integrity, brilliant ideas. But many people possess those things, and the problem is moving from there to the writing, to getting a character off the boat and onto the shore. It's like a magician, you know: when you watch him on the stage you see the rabbit and the lights and the beautiful colors, but the skill is in the false bottom and the dexterity of his fingers. That's what I teach: how to handle it so that the reader is only aware of the rabbit that comes out of the hat and doesn't see the false bottom. That's craft—and hard work.
Can the passion, the art, be taught in any way?
I don't really think so. I think people would disagree, but I don't think so. I think it's possible to talk to students and to get them—help them—to open a door or remove cataracts.
But you have to at least sense that there's a door or a vision there?
Yes, and that's the mysterious part, the ineffable part. You really don't know why somebody has it, somebody doesn't. But whatever it is, I'm sure that it's going this way—outward. The problem then becomes distance. That's what I meant when I said identifying error. Students are frequently unwilling to rewrite, because rewriting suggests to them that what they wrote the first time is wrong, and they don't like that feeling. But it's not that, it's just that writing is a process and you are cleaning up the language.
It's not that you're changing it: you're doing it better, hitting a higher note or a deeper tone or a different color. The revision for me is the exciting part; it's the part that I can't wait for—getting the whole dumb thing done so that I can do the real work, which is making it better and better and better.
You have said that you started with one idea for The Bluest Eye and then changed your mind and rewrote the whole thing. It seems like an enormous task.
That was thrilling to do. But if I had approached it like, "Oh, my God, I did it wrong, now I have to do it right," I would never have done it at all. It's a process of discovery. I feel an enthusiasm for it. It's not like getting a paper back that you have to do over; it's different.
Then the idea in the teaching is to make the students feel that the changes are part of a bettering process.
That's right. That's hard. The only way that I was ever successful in doing it—the way that informs the courses that I teach—was not to use their stuff, the students' work. I bring to the class manuscripts that I have bought, or somebody has bought and published, that are unedited, and I make them do it. They have to identify where it is that the author has gone wrong, where the characters are too thin, the setting and so on—I caution them not to get overenthusiastic about this, but they never listen. They are ruthless when it comes to evaluating other people's things. Then I don't go back to the authors for changes, I go to the students. "You thought the dialogue was flat; well, puff it up!" They start to see what it takes to make a distinction between this person's dialogue and that one's—they don't talk the same. "What would this person see?" "This kind of character would not notice that." So they make the changes, and that's what the grading is based on.
If it were an ideal course, it would go on to their own writing, because my assumption is—and I'm certain that it is true—once you get into the habit of fixing, you can fix your own. I remove from them this emotional connection of defending constantly; everything that someone says about your work may not be right, but I say you must pay attention to it. If I am restless about it, something is wrong. I may not know what it is; what I say is wrong may not be right; but pay attention to my unease, or anybody's unease.
When I'm talking to students who want to write professionally, I try to draw from simple analogies: the carpenter who is going to make a perfect chair has to know about wood, trees, the body and how it looks when it is in a sitting position. He should know something about the industry first of all. And then he should pick the right wood for color, look at the quality—in other words, it's a job of craftsmanship. You approach it in a responsible, intelligent way. What has happened, I think—and I would like to place blame somewhere, but I shift so often—is that writing has become almost a celebrity thing in the sense that people don't want to write; they want to be authors. And that's quite different.
About this notion of celebrity, you were saying that you had never thought of yourself as a writer, had never even thought of The Bluest Eye as a novel when you were writing it. Now, with three novels behind you, do you think of yourself as a writer?
I now think of myself as a writer. I didn't realize it on my own though. It was after Sula was published; I was talking to my editor (Robert Gottlieb of Knopf) one day, and he said, "This is what you are going to be when you grow up. This is it." I said, "A writer?" He said, "That's right. Of all those other little things you do, this is it. This is what you are." It wasn't that long ago, and I've had to think about it. In my life, I've never known what I was doing from one minute to the next; I was just working, I didn't have a "career." I grew up in a time when people didn't think like they do now about what they are going to be and do. I wanted to be a whole person, I wanted to be a good person, I wanted to be all those big things, and none of that had anything to do with a job. It was quite apart from the work that I was doing—I respected the work, but I didn't live there. So when someone said to me, "This is what you are going to be when you grow up; you are now grown up and this is your job," it really came as a huge idea. It was like I had never heard it before.
But when I am writing, if I have in mind that I am writing a novel or that they are going to read it, it does something to the voice: the voice is not intimate. You read stuff and you know that the author is talking to somebody right there, next to you, but not you. The impetus for writing The Bluest Eye in the first place was to write a book about a kind of person that was never in literature anywhere, never taken seriously by anybody—all those peripheral little girls. So I wanted to write a book that—if that child ever picked it up—would look representational. And so, what you do is focus on that kind of intimacy. If you do it well enough, it becomes accessible to lots and lots of people. If you're writing for lots and lots of people, you have these vague, lumpy books.
I was writing for some clear, single person—I would say myself, because I was quite content to be the only reader. I thought that everything that needed to be written had been written: there was so much. I am not being facetious when I say I wrote it in order to read it. And I think that is what makes the difference, because I could look at it as a reader, really as a reader, and not as my own work. And then I could say, "This doesn't make me feel right," and I could change it. That's what I mean by the distance. People always say that to be a good writer you have to read: that sounds like they're collecting ideas and information. But what it ought to mean is that you have to be able to read what you write critically. And with distance. And surrender to it and know the problems and not get all fraught. There must be tons of "first novels," written and unwritten.
The other problem is beginnings. My beginnings are not beginnings; I just start. Sometimes I have to write the beginning after the book is done. Well, that seems like a natural thing, but many people don't go forward because the beginning isn't right; they just leave it until they get it right. I write what's there, what I know is there. If I have to rewrite it or change it, I'm not fearful about that any more. I always know the story, the plot. The difficulty is with the intricate problems of language.
What was the impetus for writing The Bluest Eye? Had you written before?
Not really. Just little nothings. I think it was the situation which I was in at that time that was conducive to writing. I was in a place where I knew I was not going to be for a long time; I didn't have any friends and didn't make any, didn't want any because I was on my way somewhere else. So I wrote as a thing to do. If I had played the piano, I think I would have done that—but I didn't have a piano and don't play. So I wrote. By the time The Bluest Eye was published, I had already begun Sula. If all the publishers had disappeared in one night, I would have written anyway. I like the fact that other people like what I write, and I suppose that if the publishers had disappeared, I would have written it and Xeroxed it and passed it around. But writing was a thing that I could not not do at that point—it was a way of thinking for me. It still is; I don't have any choice about that.
So much of the writing in Song of Solomon is like folklore, oral lore. Did you grow up listening to voices like that?
Yes. Stories. There were two kinds of education going on: one was the education in the schools which was print oriented; and right side by side with it was this other way of looking at the world that was not only different than what we learned about in school, it was coming through another sense. People told stories. Also there was the radio; I was a radio child. You get in the habit of gathering information that way, and imagining the rest. You make it up. It was horrible to see pictures of Hamlet and Cinderella—it was awful. I hate to see pictures of my characters, good or bad—although I always compliment the artist.
I never use characters from my life. I may have matched pieces, but it's usually something vague. The song of Solomon: there's a song like that in my family. I don't know all the lyrics but it starts with a line like "Green, the only son of Solomon," and then some words I don't understand, but it is a genealogy. I made up the lyrics in the Song of Solomon to go with the story. And my mother was named out of the Bible, the way they were in the book. So stuff like that.
I remember seeing a friend of my mother's when I was 4 or 5 years old, and I don't know anything about that woman except her name and the way she looked. But there would be a flood of things that I attached to her, and I suppose that I could say that I used her for part of a character. I don't know a thing about that lady except what her name was, but what I remember is the way they said her name, the way the women said her name, so I knew as a child that she was different. They said it with such stuff—they had some strong reaction to her that was part awe and part disapproval and part affection. I don't know a thing about that lady, and I haven't asked anybody about her, but I remember her face, and mostly this part around the eyes. So those are shreds, but that's all you need to build somebody like Sula or Hannah.
In Song of Solomon the main character is a man, and you seemed to have no trouble getting inside of him. Do you think that men and women in general can write about each other honestly?
They ought to be able to do it. It shouldn't be a problem—it's just a question of perception. You know, it's like we were saying in class yesterday, about that question that always disturbs me, that question of identification with black writers and about being able to understand the book in spite of that. It's always a bothersome idea. But Nadine Gordimer writes about black people with such astounding sensibilities and sensitivity—not patronizing, not romantic, just real. And Eudora Welty does the same thing. Lillian Hellman has done it. Now, we might categorize these women as geniuses of a certain sort, but if they can write about it, it means that it is possible. They didn't say, "Oh, my God, I can't write about black people"; it didn't stop them. There are white people who do respond that way though, assuming there's some huge barrier. But if you can relate to Beowolf and Jesus Christ when you read about them, it shouldn't be so difficult to relate to black literature.
I am curious about one thing: it seems to me that of the white writers who write about black people well, most of them are women. All the people that I have mentioned are also from the South, South Africa, born in totally racist places, and that's a fascinating idea. They are all extraordinary women; their perceptions are so unlike what are supposed to be the perceptions of the community in which they live and, of course, who they are. So when they make that leap, they make it totally.
I feel the same way about writing about men. It takes some relaxed sensibility, that's all. Trying to imagine it. Think about it. I look at my children—boy children—and they are different from me. And they are impelled by different things. Instead of saying something general about it, I would say, "I wonder what that is?" and then try to see the world the way they might see it. So that you enter the world instead of hovering over it and trying to dominate it and make it into something. You have to have that kind of absence of hostility—absence of anything. You should do it for every character, and if a character is very old or very young or very rich or very poor or black or white or male or female, your ability to do it is the marked difference between writing on the surface and writing underneath.
Toni Morrison on what she teaches aspiring writers:
"I do not teach passion and vision and all of those big, wonderful things which are absolutely necessary for extraordinary writing: I have to assume that my students have vision, passion, integrity, brilliant ideas. But many people possess those things, and the problem is moving from there to the writing, to getting a character off the boat and onto the shore."
On students' willingness to rewrite:
"Students are frequently unwilling to rewrite, because rewriting suggests to them that what they wrote the first time is wrong, and they don't like that feeling. But it's not that, it's just that writing is a process and you are cleaning up the language.
"It's not that you're changing it: you're doing it better, hitting a higher note or a deeper tone or a different color. The revision for me is the exciting part; it's the part that I can't wait for—getting the whole dumb thing done so that I can do the real work, which is making it better and better and better."