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.

Writing advice from Teju Cole

Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer and photographer who writes fiction and essays, takes photographs, and often combines the two crafts. His writing is always compelling, always precise. Reading it inspires and impresses.

I started with his fiction / auto-fiction Open City and went on to read his other books, particularly enjoying Known and Strange Things. I think a good writer allows you to perceive something you thought you understood in a new way, and Cole’s writing does this for me.

In his pieces called Eight Lessons for a Young Writer (originally a fictional exercise) Cole explores the craft of writing, providing advice and encouragement. The lessons are available to download here.

Here is some advice from one of those, on the value of keeping a journal. Hope you enjoy.

[…] that is what your writing talent consists of: to make the ordinary
interesting. In a field of unexceptional events, zoom in on the pungent
detail.

I want to be practical now: how are you going to accomplish
this? The answer is simple: keep a journal. It amazes me how often
people call themselves writers and yet fail to write. Runners run
everyday, and they know that not every run is a race. Musicians play
music perpetually, but not every time they pick up the guitar is a
concert. Writers, meanwhile, like to wait around for inspiration to
strike. Don’t wait; write! Describe, describe, describe, and find the
pleasure in pinning the right words to life’s incessant stream of
sensations.

From Teju Cole’s Eight Lessons for a Young Writer

Writing advice from bell hooks

I’m writing today’s advice from my lounge at home, listening to the helicopters that have been buzzing since Monday, searching for a man who is missing on the mountain. I learned about this case last night because my husband and I went up to the mountain for a walk, and the parking lot was crowded with men who had been looking for him. His disappearance and the fact that they haven’t yet found him is part of my soundscape.

The physical danger of the mountain, for many of us, is made worse by the danger posed by other people. The lack of safety we feel when walking alone.

A few weeks back my girlfriends and I went for a walk on the same mountain – one of the first socially distanced walks we’d been on. Spending time with these two women is an essential part of my wellbeing. They nourish my soul. I had been looking forward to the walk the whole week.

We had just rounded a bend on the mountain path, coming to a quieter part of the trail and feeling glad not to be navigating and negotiating the narrow path and other people with masks and without, when we came upon a man walking in the opposite direction from us. He was wearing a beanie and it was purple and glittery. He looked as though he was concentrating hard on appearing casual, walking in a way that you do when you’re thinking about walking instead of just doing it.

My fear radar began to sound, and I stopped, waiting for my friends to catch up to me. Then, behind the first man came a second man, running towards us, eyes taking up his whole face with terror. I began to backtrack as the first man spun back around and threatened the second. ‘Do you want to die here today?’ The second man stopped.

The first man turned back towards us, same casual look on his face as though nothing had happened. On the outside it seemed as he was unchanged and unfazed by the threat he had made, or by our witnessing it. My friends and I stood stock still, off the path, hands up as if in surrender, as we let the first man walk past us. ‘You’re fine girls’ he said, and it felt so strange that he wanted us to be at ease even as he checked us up and down.

He had taken the second man’s phone, we later learned, with a knife in one sleeve and a screwdriver in the other. He had threatened to take his life. By the time we walked back to our cars the robber had disappeared down a valley in the mountain, no longer visible from us. We told everyone we walked past to be careful, feeling the foolishness and futility of those words.

Of course, our walk was spoiled. We had that strange South African feeling of not quite being the victims of crime and so not really feeling justified in being traumatised because, well, ‘at least he didn’t hurt you.’ We went somewhere else, tried to let go of the adrenaline but the encounter stained our experience like ink in water, colouring everything.

In my old life, I worked in the field of gender-based violence. You don’t have to choose this as a career to know that our country is in crisis. I made a really difficult decision to stop doing this work this year because I couldn’t continue to bear the unbearable. I have lost hope in the ability of our government to change things. I don’t believe it will get better and I can’t continue to act as if I do. But the state of things continues to preoccupy me, the permanent ink in my water.

So while I listen to the helicopter hovering, and truly hope that they find this runner and that he is okay, I can’t help thinking about the people we don’t get the helicopters and search parties out for.

We don’t get the helicopters out when women and girls go missing every day. We don’t look for them or arrange big community search parties. There are no groups of men standing in rows and walking the streets to knock on doors and ask if anyone’s seen them. The men out there on the mountain today and the 200 volunteers that have allegedly signed up to help look for this single man are not the same people you see marching every women’s day or in the 16 days of activism.

Unfair, unjust, inequitable. These words seem as useless as trying to catch rain in a sieve.

So I turned to writing advice from someone who considers all of this, feminist writer and theorist bell hooks. I hope that today you find room to write out the things that are disturbing you, and that in some way you find healing.

“A distinction must be made between that writing which enables us to hold on to life even as we are clinging to old hurts and wounds and that writing which offers to us a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully. Such writing is not an anchor that we mistakenly cling to so as not to drown. It is writing that truly rescues, that enables us to reach the shore, to recover.”

bell hooks – remembered rapture, the writer at work

Writing advice from Rebecca Solnit

Last year I discovered the fantastic site – Literary Hub – when reading a piece by a favourite writer friend, Yewande Omotoso (buy her books!)

Literary Hub is a great collection of writing advice, literary critique, opinion writing, and new writing. Read more pieces, here. Since I read Yewande’s piece I check the site regularly and I’m always pleased by what I find.

Over the lockdown I’ve been dipping in and out of Rebecca Solnit’s book – Men Explain Things to Me. Solnit is an American writer who has written on feminism, the environment, and the world. She has published a huge number of books and won numerous awards for her writing.

So I googled ‘writing advice from Rebecca Solnit’ and was excited to find that LitHub included a piece by her called ‘How to be a writer’, taking the form of a list of ten suggestions. Check out the full piece here.

Here’s point 1 – enjoy.

1) Write. There is no substitute. Write what you most passionately want to write, not blogs, posts, tweets or all the disposable bubblewrap in which modern life is cushioned. But start small: write a good sentence, then a good paragraph, and don’t be dreaming about writing the great American novel or what you’ll wear at the awards ceremony because that’s not what writing’s about or how you get there from here. The road is made entirely out of words. Write a lot. Maybe at the outset you’ll be like a toddler—the terrible twos are partly about being frustrated because you’re smarter than your motor skills or your mouth, you want to color the picture, ask for the toy, and you’re bumbling, incoherent and no one gets it, but it’s not only time that gets the kid onward to more sophistication and skill, it’s effort and practice. Write bad stuff because the road to good writing is made out of words and not all of them are well-arranged words.

Rebecca Solnit as her writing appears on LitHub.

Writing advice from Zadie Smith

It was inevitable that I’d include Zadie Smith in this series of writing advice posts.

For those who read and love her, Zadie Smith is an example of what to do with a sentence, how to mould a character, and how to write a novel or short story that has a rhythm that rolls you forward and sucks you in until you’ve forgotten to eat and drink or talk to your loved ones that day. Danielle Bowler wrote an ode to Zadie Smith in Feminism Is, if you’d like to get a South African take.

Smith needs no introduction from me, I’m sure. But, just in case you have never heard of her, she is the author of nine books that include novels, essay collections, and short stories. She has been shortlisted for and won a host of prizes and accolades and for those lucky enough to live in New York she is a tenured professor of fiction at New York University.

Many people have read through Smith’s ten rules of writing which includes at number ten “Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

Her advice on when to edit might be tough for some of us to take, but I think it is valuable and something I should do more. In summary, don’t rush. In full, see the excerpt from the Brain Pickings article below.

“When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second — put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.

[…]

You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.

Zadie Smith as quoted in Brain Pickings

Good luck to you all in forgetting that you wrote something. I hope what you find in those drawers a year from now is surprising and exciting.