Writing advice from Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison was an American essayist, novelist, editor, and professor. She was the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature and was awarded a huge array of prizes for her work. She was the author of eleven novels, seven children’s books, the writer/editor of nine non-fiction books, and countless other pieces of writing (see the bibliography here).

As Emily Temple describes on LitHub “I can’t think of another writer who is quite so universally beloved as Toni Morrison. Her work is magnificent, her legacy is unimpeachable, and she reveals her brilliance at every opportunity.” That LitHub piece includes some of Morrison’s writing advice if you’re open to a longer read.

Today I took a look at her interview with the Paris Review from 1993, where she covers so much ground on the writing life. I suggest you read the full text here. For me, the description of writing as a sort of mystical process felt so true. It often feels, when my fingers are moving across the keys, that I have no idea where the words are coming from.

I think this gives permission for you to write whatever comes to you, and to treat that as a gift. And to not take it so personally when you read it back to yourself and it hasn’t come out quite the way you’d wanted it to. It provides a helpful distance that can allow you to revisit your writing as marvellous (for existing at all) and to then edit it without (too much) self-criticism.

So here is Morrison:

Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. […]

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?

Toni Morrison as interviewed by the Paris Review

I also thought it was important that she encouraged young writers to listen to themselves – to avoid the shoulds or shouldn’ts that work for other people and to turn inwards. I wholeheartedly support this advice (even as I wish that I could get up before the dawn, and know I cannot).

So I hope this advice helps you give yourself permission to write, and to treat yourself to the context which makes that writing possible.