Happy birthday, Toni Morrison! Here are some quotes from her writing:
“‘If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.'”
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”
“Your life is already artful—waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.”
“Word-work is sublime […] because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference—the way in which we are like no other life.”
“The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined, and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers.”
“A dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.”
“I’m just trying to look at something without blinking, to see what it is like, or it could have been like, and how that had something to do with the way we live now. Novels are always inquiries for me.”
“You need intelligence, and you need to look. You need a gaze, a wide gaze, penetrating and roving—that’s what’s useful for art.”
“The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.”
“It’s that being open—not scratching for it, not digging for it, not constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting that what you don’t know will be available to you. It is bigger than your overt consciousness or your intelligence or even your gifts; it is out there somewhere and you have to let it in.”
“I don’t trust a performance. I could get a response that might make me think it was successful when it wasn’t at all. The difficulty for me in writing—among the difficulties—is to write language that can work quietly on a page for a reader who doesn’t hear anything. Now for that, one has to work very carefully with what is in between the words. What is not said. Which is measure, which is rhythm, and so on. So, it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”
“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.”
“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.”
“What I’m going to say is going to sound so pompous, but I think an artist, whether it’s a painter or a writer, it’s almost holy. There’s something about the vision, the wisdom. You can be a nobody, but seeing that way, it’s holy, it’s godlike. It’s above the normal life and perception of all of us, normally. You step up. And as long as you’re up there, even if you’re a terrible person—especially if you’re a terrible person—you see things that come together, and shake you, or move you, or clarify something for you that outside of your art you would not have known. It really is a vision above, or beyond.”
“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?”
“I may be wrong about this, but it seems as though so much fiction, particularly that by younger people, is very much about themselves. Love and death and stuff, but my love, my death, my this, my that. Everybody else is a light character in that play.
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.”
“Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings…everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.”
“I try really hard, even if there’s a minor character, to hear their memorable lines. They really do float over your head when you’re writing them, like ghosts or living people. I don’t describe them very much, just broad strokes. You don’t know necessarily how tall they are, because I don’t want to force the reader into seeing what I see. It’s like listening to the radio as a kid. I had to help, as a listener, put in all of the details. It said “blue,” and I had to figure out what shade. Or if they said it was one way, I had to see it. It’s a participatory thing.”
“I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can’t expect to teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort….[Confidence] I can’t do much about. I’m very brutal about that. I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous. What I can do very well is what I used to do, which is edit. I can follow their train of thought, see where their language is going, suggest other avenues. I can do that, and I can do that very well. I like to get in the manuscript.”
“Those [paragraphs] that need reworking I do as long as I can. I mean I’ve revised six times, seven times, thirteen times. But there’s a line between revision and fretting, just working it to death. It is important to know when you are fretting it; when you are fretting it because it is not working, it needs to be scrapped.”
“People say, I write for myself, and it sounds so awful and so narcissistic, but in a sense if you know how to read your own work—that is, with the necessary critical distance—it makes you a better writer and editor. When I teach creative writing, I always speak about how you have to learn how to read your work; I don’t mean enjoy it because you wrote it. I mean, go away from it, and read it as though it is the first time you’ve ever seen it. Critique it that way. Don’t get all involved in your thrilling sentences and all that…”
“I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out—life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time….
I’ve tried to overcome not having orderly spaces by substituting compulsion for discipline, so that when something is urgently there, urgently seen or understood, or the metaphor was powerful enough, then I would move everything aside and write for sustained periods of time.”
“The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek—it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language—all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas….
Language can never ‘pin down’ slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?”
“If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
“The writing is—I’m free from pain. It’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing.”
“Make up a story…For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab bag candy game.”
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.