Legendary author Toni Morrison (1931–2019) wrote the classic novels Beloved, The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon, among countless others.
Here are six of her wonderful quotes about writing!
1. If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
This is Toni Morrison’s most famous quote about writing, and it’s easy to see why. It’s without question one of the most important pieces of advice you can give to any aspiring writer. It’s what everybody with a book inside of them should hear. When you go to the bookstore and look for a specific kind of book but can’t ever find it? Then you’re going to have to get comfy in a chair, pull out your laptop, and start writing.
There are so many reasons to write, and often you’ll have so many great ideas for potential books to put down on the page. You should go with the idea that’s personal, that’s close to your heart, that compels you to no end, but one other thing you should ask yourself is, has this particular book been written yet? If the answer is yes, still write it if you want, but if the answer is no, then it’s the one you have to write — simple as that.
2. 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.
Here’s another quote to haunt you for a little bit. What Morrison is saying here is so true. Many, many writers can put themselves on the page easily and make the familiar work well for the reader. Often what’s most fun to write is what you know well, that you don’t have to put a lot of hard thinking into and that you can put your own unique spin on.
The challenge of writing comes when you write about other people not very much like yourself. When you take a few scary steps into the strangeness. Going outside your comfort zone is essential if you want to grow as a writer, and the sooner you learn that, the better. You want to occasionally explore a character you haven’t spent much time with in the real world. You want to attack a genre you’ve been frightened by for years. You want to tell a story at times the world doesn’t expect from you. If you fail, you fail. No big deal. Pick yourself up and try something different. But if you succeed, there’s no telling how exciting your future possibilities as a writer will become.
3. I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in the subway, where you can’t do anything anyway.
One big problem with being a writer in 2020 is always having something to cure your boredom. You get bored for five seconds, and then you immediately pick up your phone and scroll through Twitter or turn on the TV and put on another episode of that show you’ve been bingeing. Even when you’re stuck at home all day, there’s no excuse to be bored. As long as you have a phone and a TV nearby, you have thousands of entertainment options right there at your disposal.
The problem with this is that boredom significantly helps you as a writer. Even just five to ten minutes of staring out a window, maybe some soft music playing in the background, will relax your mind and stir up your imagination. Whenever you’re stuck on something in the latest story you’re writing, boredom will help you every time. You have to clear your mind and think of other things. Go for a walk without your phone. Take a hike, get out in nature. Think of your phone as the creativity killer, and let boredom enter your life from time to time, I’m telling you!
4. Books are a form of political action. Books are knowledge. Books are reflection. Books change your mind.
Books should tickle your curiosity the same way they do for me. Books should be everywhere in your life, ready at a moment’s notice to be pulled off the shelf. Even in this modern age of technology and streaming services and endless screens that clutter up our lives, books still have a tremendous power that can’t be ignored.
Morrison’s books have helped change the world in countless ways, and she’s just one single writer. Imagine what you could write and work on this year that could change the lives of even a few select people who eventually read it. Tell the story that has the ability to let people reflect on their own lives and maybe think a little differently about something. Never forget how a dusty hardback or softcover book can still move people in an extraordinary way.
5. I think some aspects of writing can be taught. Obviously, you can’t teach vision or talent. But you can help with comfort.
Many writers have to be teachers, it’s just the way it is. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who can make enough money from their writing to pay the bills and be well off, you’re going to need to find a day job that allows you to get by. And teaching is such a natural profession for writers because you get to teach other people what you love and you often get breaks that allow you to work on your latest projects. Especially at the college level, teaching can be a job that works really well with your life as a writer.
But when it comes to the actual teaching, Morrison is right: not everything can be taught, and the sooner you learn that as a teacher, the better. If you’re teaching a fiction workshop to fifteen students, a few of those students will have the vision and talent (and work ethic, I’d also add), but many of them will not. Some things in writing you either have or you don’t, that’s just the way it is. But almost everyone has the ability to tell a good story if given the necessary guidance and comfort that all teachers can give. It’s a matter of tapping into what potential each aspiring writer has.
6. My world did not shrink because I was a Black female writer. It just got bigger.
This quote in a way goes back to the first one. This quote says that what makes you unique will make you stand out the most. If you feel like you’re different, embrace that difference and share your personal stories with the world. Just because you’re a black female writer doesn’t mean you have a limited audience or that not a lot of people will want to read your work. The same goes for if you’re a gay person or a trans person or a person with a disability.
Whatever it may be, be you, and have the confidence to give your voice to us. You have no idea how many readers out there needed to hear the words of Toni Morrison. Her novels have shaped our world since her first book The Bluest Eye was published fifty years ago, in 1970. She was probably told no a number of times. She probably had some struggle getting her words published no matter how much she believed in herself and her stories. But you know what? She persevered and she shared stories that were uniquely her own and she became one of the most celebrated authors of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
You don’t want to just write something that everyone else is writing. You don’t want to contribute a generic story to an already super popular genre or age market. Think outside the box. Reach deep within yourself and find that thing about you that you believe might limit your audience in some way or might shrink your world. The sooner you realize that thing will actually make your world infinitely bigger, the better chance you’ll have at being a successful, celebrated, and happy writer.
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