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.
If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newsletter, please find it here.
If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!
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.