Our great Toni Morrison passed away earlier this year. With perfect timing, she first finished appearing in a documentary about her life. It’s titled, “The Pieces of Me” and I greedily grabbed the DVD as soon as it was available.
If you’re looking for a lecture on how to write, you won’t find it in the film. What you will find are the determined “pieces” that added up to Morrison’s being such a superb writer. Of course, she first contributed her immense talent and feeling for language.
Talent may be a gift we’re born with, but it doesn’t come with a guarantee of success. We have to be willing to add other elements. One of them is jettisoning the excuse ,“I don’t have time to write.” Early on, Morrison had to balance being a single mother of two boys, while also holding down a fulltime job as an editor, teaching, and somehow writing her first novels. True, she had her family’s help with the children . But the more important piece was the way she utilized time. She had a routine of getting up before dawn – “the best time,” she insisted – and using those precious early hours to write before other demands were on her. She also used whatever moments she could throughout the day. “I brood,” she said, “thinking of ideas – in the car, in the subway, while mowing the lawn. By the time I get to the paper something’s already there and I can produce.”
A friend recalled Morrison driving her car and, during the long wait before a toll booth, holding a notepad against the steering wheel so she could jot down some thoughts she didn’t want to lose. “You don’t steal time,” Morrison said, “you make time,”
The other lesson we could all learn was her refusal to accept negatives. Many times she was advised not to “limit “ herself to writing about “Black people.” But she knew that her own people, her heritage, were what gave life to her fiction.
One of her remarks that most resonated with me was about “the little white man on my shoulder.” She was referring , course, to the inner critic familiar to most of us. Too many times I’ve heard that creature whispering in my ear that the story I’m writing isn’t any good, isn’t “going anywhere, “etc. Our critic doesn’t have to be a “white” man, as Morrison wryly described, but any color with a voice that could defeat us. Morrison’s solution? “I knock him off my shoulder!”
Try doing that for real. When you’re stuck, brush a defiant hand across your shoulder and tell that destructive critic, ” Leave me alone!” (I confess to “Get the hell away!)
When teaching a memoir writing class, I had a student act this out with me. I sat at the table writing,, while she whispered defeating words in my ear. I stood up and gently (or not too gently) pushed her out of the room. “You can come back later and give me editing suggestions,” I said. “But don’t come near me while I’m writing!” ”I think Morrison would appreciate that.
The documentary is overlong and also verges on fan magazine gushing. But these faults are worth overlooking, for the lessons we can learn from an indomitable writer.
BOOKS: Widow’s Walk – available through iUniverse.com; Turning Toward Tomorrow –Xlibris.com; Ten Women of Valor and Role Play- both available through CreateSpace.com and Amazon.com; also Amazon Kindle.