Saturday, September 26, 2009
Writers at Work: Toni Morrison
Source: The Paris Review, 1993
Interviewer: You have said that you begin to write before dawn. Did this habit begin for practical reasons, or was the early morning an especially fruitful time for you?
Morrison: Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning. Many years later, after I stopped working at Random House, I just stayed at home for a couple of years. I discovered things about myself I had never thought about before. At first I didn't know when I wanted to eat, because I had always eaten when it was lunchtime or dinnertime or breakfast time. Work and the children had driven all of my habits... I didn't know the weekday sounds of my own house; it all made me feel a little giddy.
I was involved in writing Beloved at that time—this was in 1983—and eventually I realized that I was clearer-headed, more confident and generally more intelligent in the morning. The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.
Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don't remember exactly what the gesture was—there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard—but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn't have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee and watch the light come. And she said, “Well, that's a ritual.” And I realized that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space I can only call non-secular... 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. For me, light is the signal in the transaction. It's not being in the light, it's being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.
I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are at 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?
Interviewer: What about your writing routine?
Morrison: 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.
Interviewer: Could you write after work?
Morrison: That was difficult. 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. I'm talking to you about getting the first draft.
Interviewer: You have to do it straight through?
Morrison: I do. I don't think it's a law.
Interviewer: Could you write on the bottom of a shoe while riding on a train like Robert Frost? Could you write on an airplane?
Morrison: Sometimes something that I was having some trouble with falls into place, a word sequence, say, so I've written on scraps on paper, in hotels on hotel stationary, in automobiles. If it arrives you know. If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down.
Interviewer: What is the physical act of writing like for you?
Morrison: I write with a pencil.
Interviewer: Would you ever work on a computer?
Morrison: Oh, I do that also, but that is so much later when everything is put together. I type that into a computer and then I begin to revise. But everything I write for the first time is written with a pencil, maybe a ballpoint if I don't have a pencil. I'm not picky, but my preference is for yellow legal pads and a nice No. 2 pencil.
Interviewer: Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 soft?
Morrison: Exactly. I remember once trying to use a tape recorder, but it doesn’t work.
Interviewer: Did you actually dictate a story into the machine?
Morrison: Not the whole thing, but just a bit. For instance, when two or three sentences seemed to fall into place, I thought I would carry a tape recorder in the car, particularly when I was working at Random House going back and forth every day. It occurred to me that I could just record it. It was a disaster. I don't trust my writing that is not written, although I work very hard in subsequent revisions to remove the writerly-ness from it, to give it a combination of lyrical, standard, and colloquial language. To pull all these things together into something that I think is much more alive and representative. But I don't trust something that occurs to me and then is spoken and transferred immediately to the page.
Interviewer: Do you ever read your work out loud while you are working on it?
Morrison: Not until it's published. 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.
Interviewer: How many times would you say you have to write a paragraph over to reach this standard?
Morrison: Well, those 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.
Interviewer: Do you ever go back over what has been published and wish you had fretted more over something?
Morrison: A lot. Everything.