Toni Morrison Dispenses Sound Writing Advice: Tips You Can Apply to Your Own Work

Image by Angela Rad­ules­cu via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

It is some­times the case that a favorite writer isn’t ter­ri­bly inter­est­ing when it comes to talk­ing shop.  This has nev­er been so with the self-reveal­ing Toni Mor­ri­son, whose pub­lic appear­ances and inter­views often dupli­cate the expe­ri­ence of read­ing one of her novels—her voice draws you in, and before you know it, you’re part of a world all her own that she has giv­en you the priv­i­lege of join­ing for a short time.

This is the expe­ri­ence of read­ing her inter­view with Elis­sa Schap­pell in the Paris Review. Mor­ri­son dis­cours­es on sub­jects rang­ing from her per­son­al rou­tine and his­to­ry, to her iden­ti­ty as a writer and a woman, to the larg­er his­to­ry of slav­ery and the black lives she writes about. Woven through it all are obser­va­tions about her art that may or may not be of any use to bud­ding writ­ers, but which will cer­tain­ly make lovers of Mor­ri­son read her work a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. Some of her obser­va­tions are below:

  • Write when you know you’re at your best. For her, this hap­pened to be the ear­ly morn­ing, pre-dawn hours, before her chil­dren woke up, since she worked full-time and feels she is “not very bright or very wit­ty or very inven­tive after the sun goes down.” Mor­ri­son describes her morn­ing rit­u­al this way:

I always get 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.

  • “There’s a line between revis­ing and fret­ting” It’s impor­tant for a writer to know when they are “fret­ting,” because if some­thing isn’t work­ing, “it needs to be scrapped,” although in answer to whether she goes back over pub­lished work and wish­es she had fret­ted more, Mor­ri­son answers, “a lot. Every­thing.”
  • A good edi­tor is “like a priest or a psy­chi­a­trist.” Mor­ri­son worked as an edi­tor for Ran­dom House for 20 years before she pub­lished her first nov­el. She observes the rela­tion­ship between writer and edi­tor by say­ing that get­ting the wrong one means that “you are bet­ter off alone.” One of the marks of a good edi­tor? She doesn’t “love you or your work,” there­fore offers crit­i­cism, not com­pli­ments.
  • Don’t write with an audi­ence in mind, write for the char­ac­ters. Know­ing how to read your own work—with the crit­i­cal dis­tance of a good reader—makes you a “bet­ter writer and edi­tor.” For Mor­ri­son, this means writ­ing not with an audi­ence in mind, but with the char­ac­ters to go to for advice, to tell you “if the ren­di­tion of their lives is authen­tic or not.”
  • Con­trol your char­ac­ters. Despite the ever-present and clichéd demand to “write what you know,” Mor­ri­son stu­dious­ly tries to avoid tak­ing char­ac­ter traits from peo­ple she knows. As she puts it: “mak­ing a lit­tle life for one­self by scav­eng­ing oth­er people’s lives is a big ques­tion, and it does have moral and eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions.” And as for keep­ing con­trol of her char­ac­ters, Mor­ri­son says “They have noth­ing on their minds but them­selves and aren’t inter­est­ed in any­thing but them­selves. So you can’t let them write your book for you.”
  • Plot is like melody; it does­n’t need to be com­pli­cat­ed. Mor­ri­son sums up her approach to plot in Jazz and The Bluest Eye by say­ing “I put the whole plot on the first page.” Rather than con­struct­ing intri­cate plots with hid­den twists, she prefers to think of the plot in musi­cal terms as a “melody,” where the sat­is­fac­tion lies in rec­og­niz­ing it and then hear­ing the “echoes and shades and turns and piv­ots” around it.
  • Style, like jazz, involves end­less prac­tice and restraint. Speak­ing of Jazz, Mor­ri­son tells she has always thought of her­self like a jazz musi­cian, “some­one who prac­tices and prac­tices and prac­tices in order to able to invent and to make his art look effort­less and grace­ful.” A large part of her “jazz” style, she says, is “an exer­cise in restraint, in hold­ing back.”
  • Be your­self, but be aware of tra­di­tion. Of the diver­si­ty of African-Amer­i­can jazz musi­cians and singers, Mor­ri­son says “I would like to write like that. I would like to write nov­els that were unmis­tak­ably mine, but nev­er­the­less fit first into African Amer­i­can tra­di­tions and sec­ond of all, this whole thing called lit­er­a­ture.”

Most read­ers of Morrison’s work would argue that’s exact­ly what she’s done her whole career. Read the entire inter­view here and be sure to vis­it the com­plete archive of Paris Review inter­views online.

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

Writ­ing Tips by Hen­ry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Mar­garet Atwood, Neil Gaiman & George Orwell

Ray Brad­bury Offers 12 Essen­tial Writ­ing Tips and Explains Why Lit­er­a­ture Saves Civ­i­liza­tion

Sev­en Tips From Ernest Hem­ing­way on How to Write Fic­tion

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.


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Comments (6)
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  • I love read­ing about Toni Mor­rison’s writ­ing advice.

  • joan mullings says:

    I used to read so much when I was younger, my sis­ter would say you need to be a writer. I start­ed writ­ing some­thing about ten years ago and stop. Late­ly I have been feel­ing the will to write again. I love your work and did a cou­ple of your books in col­lege. I just appre­ci­at­ed see­ing this arti­cle, as I have been ask­ing god for direc­tion and guid­ance. Thanks

  • I find the writ­ing advice very inter­est­ing and time­ly espe­cial­ly this state­ment: “mak­ing a lit­tle life for one­self by scav­eng­ing oth­er people’s lives is a big ques­tion, and it does have moral and eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions.” I am strug­gling with a char­ac­ter whose traits were trig­gered by some­one I know. Great post. Pro­mot­ed by Gene­va Writ­ing Group Face­book page.

  • Kaleb says:

    Hel­lo I am a new writer and this has helped thank you.

    Thank You,
    Kaleb

  • LCCathy Johnson says:

    Loved this arti­cle. So on point!!!
    Cathy

  • Eunice Scarfe says:

    I just saw this site for the first time.
    See­ing Toni M’s words was great, but my god, such an over­dose of male names on the’in­dex’ page. Enough already with such imbal­ance!

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