Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Few names in American letters command as much respect as Toni Morrison. The first black woman to win a Nobel Prize, Morrison, rather remarkably for a writer of such prestige, didn’t publish her first novel until she was thirty-nine. She wrote this novel – The Bluest Eye – by waking up at four AM every day to write before her two children got up. Then it was off to work. Goodness me.
Morrison is best known for the Pulitzer-winning Beloved, the heartrending novel based on the true story of an escaped slave who chose to kill her own two-year-old daughter rather than allow her to be captured by vengeful slave hunters. It’s a remarkable book that led Margaret Atwood to announce ‘Ms. Morrison’s versatility and technical and emotional range appear to know no bounds.’
These accolades all suggest that when Morrison comments on fiction, creative writing, or method, we had better be paying attention. Here, then, are five tips from Morrison that’ll make you a better writer.
1. Cultivate rituals and establish routine
Many writers and artists talk about having a favorite place to work – Dylan Thomas wrote out of an old bike shed on a cliff, Maya Angelou favored hotel rooms, and Roald Dahl had his famous garden shed – but only Morrison has been explicit in suggesting these sacred spaces are vital for writers.
Rituals and routines, says Morrison, are of supreme importance for any writer looking to get work done. As she says in her interview with The Paris Review,
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?
Then there are the rituals: Morrison talks about how every morning, before she begins writing, she makes coffee and drinks it while watching the sun rise. This, apparently, is like a threshold between Toni Morrison the sleepy mother and Toni Morrison the serious writer – only after her ritual is complete can she reliably settle into her work.Small rituals can become psychological triggers for productive writing.Click To Tweet
Rituals don’t have to be this involved; Morrison talks of a friend who needs to touch a particular object on her desk before she begins typing, but rituals can also be as simple as writing with the same pen, having a favorite ‘writing cushion,’ or engaging in some pre-writing meditation or prayer. The intent isn’t to invoke magic (although go ahead) but to help cultivate a sustainable habit.
2. Write what you don’t know
You’ve probably heard the old writers’ adage, write what you know. Well, Morrison’s creative writing students at Princeton were treated to some rather unexpected advice when she told them to ignore that entirely. ‘First,’ she said, ‘because you don’t know anything, and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends.’ Wholly fair.
But moving past the fact that many of us have led rather humdrum lives, writing what you don’t know pulls you out of your own skull and engages your imagination rather than your ability to analyze your own life. It encourages writers to empathize with their characters, which results in deeper, warmer stories.
Morrison herself was surprised by the efficacy of her advice. Of the students who first heard it, she says,
They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence. I thought it was a good training for them. Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography, at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.
I love that final statement; learning to view yourself as a stranger is a remarkably tricky skill, and fiction’s one of the few things that can teach such self-awareness. Conveniently, it also makes us better writers.Learn to see yourself as a stranger and you learn what it’s like to be someone else.Click To Tweet
3. Learn the difference between revision, fussing, and denial
British novelist Zadie Smith differentiates between writers who redraft endlessly and those who, like her, agonize over the first draft but don’t revise or rewrite. Unlike Smith, Morrison falls into the first of these categories – she confesses to revising paragraphs ‘six times, seven times, thirteen times,’ but admits that ‘there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death.’
We’ve all been there – moving words around, prodding at the page, chewing your pencil to splinters, desperately trying to make a chapter work – when perhaps we’re just fretting. If a section is still not quite right after the fifteenth draft, chances are it’s time to scrap it and try again. Don’t live in denial and agonize – as Morrison said, ‘With writing, you can always write and erase and do it over.’
4. Write for your characters, not for an audience
Too often, writers approach their writing like businessmen. They want to know whether what they’re producing is going to sell, whether there’s a readership for it, what the hot trends of the moment are…
While these concerns are valid, worrying too much about the marketability of your text is likely to adversely affect the writing itself. After all, if you’re forcibly bending your characters and plot to better fit what you perceive as popular tastes, you’re not allowing them to develop organically.
Instead of looking to readerships and audiences for advice on writing, look to your own characters. Try to write with the detachment and critical distance of a good reader – be passive and allow your characters to surprise you.
5. Exercise restraint
When it comes to their masterworks, writers can understandably get overwhelmed and fall into the trap of thinking that their text needs to be a Don DeLillo-esque epic that tackles every aspect of modern life, leaving no stone unturned; plots must be branching and difficult to follow, themes must be deep and complex, multiple schools of theory must be taken into account, etc.
Hold up there, Morrison says. For her, plots don’t need to be complex; indeed, for The Bluest Eye and Jazz, she ‘put the whole plot on the first page.’ Morrison likens plot in a work of fiction to the main melody in a jazz song; it’s there to riff off of, to hear the ‘echoes and shades and turns and pivots’ that swell around it.
Taking the jazz analogy and running with it, Morrison describes the good writer, like a jazz musician, as ‘someone who practices and practices and practices in order to able to invent and to make his art look effortless and graceful.’ A huge part of both jazz and writing is respecting silence; knowing when to play, sure, but also when not to play, when to let the actions of your characters stand without comment or explanation. As Morrison says:
Great authors know when to explicitly guide the reader through a scene and when to let them find their own way.Click To Tweet
Some writers whom I admire say everything. I have been more impressed with myself when I can say more with less instead of overdoing it, and making sure the reader knows every little detail. I’d like to rely more heavily on the reader’s own emotions and intelligence.
God help the writer
If you haven’t read any Toni Morrison, I heartily recommend you run out and do so. She seems to know how to do everything right, writing with a dazzling precision and beauty. By following the advice laid out here – i.e. by having a writing space, writing the unfamiliar, understanding when to redraft and when to cut, writing for your characters, and exercising restraint – you can take a little of her virtuosity for yourself. Good luck!
What are your favorite books by Toni Morrison? How has she influenced your own writing? Let me know in the comments, and check out 5 Ways Virginia Woolf Can Help You Improve Your Writing, 6 Ways Margaret Atwood Can Help You Improve Your Writing, and 5 Ways Maya Angelou Can Improve Your Writing for more advice form literary greats.