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“When did I feel like I was a writer? Somebody told me. On my income tax, I didn’t write ‘writer.’” —Toni Morrison
It was a simple question, really. How does Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison cultivate a story idea?
It’s apparently a simpler formula than might be expected. After the acclaimed Princeton professor addressed a full house at Sanders Theatre on Tuesday, an inquisitive first-year posed the query, saying she found Morrison’s stories, well, rather complicated.
At first, the grey-haired great one—and the audience—just laughed.
“They’re not really complicated,” Morrison said.
Toni Morrison’s four steps to writing:
1) Start with a free-floating idea—a philosophical question to explore.
2) Find the characters to explore it.
3) Structure the story.
4) Find the right voice in which to tell the tale.
And from there, Morrison says, “it’s all inevitable. It’s just straightforward.” You too can produce work like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. Sigh.
Morrison is without a doubt the preeminent black woman author in America today, her language and ideas powerful enough to prompt critics to place her among the ranks of the greatest English writers ever. (“Only Shakespeare rivals her for the number of senior theses devoted to her work,” Professor Barbara Johnson quipped when introducing Morrison.) Morrison is without a doubt the preeminent black woman author in America today. Go back and re-read that sentence. Then subtract the two words before “author.” Few people would argue the veracity of the statement, but Morrison would rather you leave them in.
“Our race-based culture not only exists, it thrives. The question is whether it exists as a virus or a rich harvest of possibilities.” —Toni Morrison
In her address, Morrison related the story of her invitation to a popular talk show. She was excited to go, she says, but as a challenge to both herself and the host, she accepted only conditionally: she would go if the conversation would not touch the topic of race.
She thought about all the other things she could talk about. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ influence on her own work. The romanticism of poverty in American literature. Her personal views on teaching and writing.
“You can see I was loaded with topics,” she said.
The host agreed. But once she was backstage, she was told the pact would be broken—race was simply too exciting not to talk about, her interviewer opined.
“I have a yearning for an environment where every sentence I speak or write is not being seen as mere protest or mere advocacy,” she said.
Nevertheless, she said, she has always insisted on her identification as a black woman.
“I didn’t want to be the just-happened-to-be-black author,” she said. Her goal in insisting that those two words be part of her lexicon was an effort to stretch the vocabulary of the literary world.
And standing at the podium in Sanders Theatre, she talked about race. The April 3 lecture, the fifth in the Radcliffe’s Inaugural series, was entitled, “‘Goodbye to All That’”: Race, Surrogacy and Farewell,” and drew a constellation of academic superstars from Harvard’s Afro-American Studies and English departments to the audience. University President and English Professor Neil L. Rudenstine procured a seat in the front row to listen to Morrison weave her spell.
Surrounded by red Radcliffe banners and garbed in gray, Morrison read an excerpt from her biggest success, Beloved (Knopf, 1988). The critics have long noted Morrison’s distinctive literary voice, but her actual reading voice is quite possibly almost as extraordinary: a marvelously flexible, husky voice with a scratch at the back of it.
Beloved is dedicated to the 60 million people who died as a result of slavery. But Afro-American art does not stand alone in its inherent politicization, Morrison said: the two are inextricable, as race is a part of life, and one of the aims of her writing is to disable the art vs. politics argument.
“You can’t presume race doesn’t exist in the artistic world,” she said. “Race profits. They would have gotten rid of it if it wasn’t working.”
Yet the pleasure of creating art lies not solely in the political statement. Like a fine musician, Morrison tunes her language. And follows her words with no fear.
“There is nothing I am afraid to write at all,” she told the audience.
Joseph P. Flood contributed to the reporting of this article.
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