Toni Morrison on Failure, Rewriting, and Experimentation

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As this month is Women’s History month, we wanted to take a moment to highlight one of the most important writers — male or female — of the last century.

No, Toni Morrison isn’t a screenwriter, but her thoughts on writing surpass form and are completely applicable whether you’re writing a broad comedy or an indie drama. In an interview with NEA Arts Magazine, Morrison discussed responsibility to ones characters, writing what you don’t know, and why failure is a good thing.

Here are a few of our favorite excerpts:

As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing.

With physical failures like liver, kidneys, heart, something else has to be done, something fixable that’s not in one’s own hands. But if it’s in your hands, then you have to pay very close attention to it, rather than get depressed or unnerved or feel ashamed. None of that is useful. It’s as though you’re in a laboratory and you’re working on an experiment with chemicals or with rats, and it doesn’t work. It doesn’t mix. You don’t throw up your hands and run out of the lab. What you do is you identify the procedure and what went wrong and then correct it. If you think of [writing] simply as information, you can get closer to success.

I wrote the first book because I wanted to read it. I thought that kind of book, with that subject—those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little black girls—had never existed seriously in literature. No one had ever written about them except as props. Since I couldn’t find a book that did that, I thought, “Well, I’ll write it and then I’ll read it.” It was really the reading impulse that got me into the writing thing.

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. It’s like writing sex scenes. What you do in such a scene is open it up so that the metaphorical language can stimulate, so that it’s not clinical, it’s not surgical. Then the reader can fill it out or take it in or remember it. But the rest [of getting it right] is just keep doing it. You just do it again and again.

When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, “Don’t pay any attention to that.” First, 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. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. 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.

Read the full interview at NEA Arts Magazine.

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