Toni Morrison: On Editing and Coping with Bad Writing

Toni Morrison: On Editing and Coping with Bad Writing

And I don't mind writing badly for a couple of days because I know I can fix it - and fix it again and again and again, and it will be better.

Toni Morrison is one of the greatest novelists and essayists still writing today. Throughout her career, she worked as an English professor, editor at Random House, and renowned Pulitzer Prize (and Nobel Prize in Literature) winning novelist in her own right. Just last year she released her latest novel, God Help the Child. If anyone knows what it takes to be a writer, it's Toni Morrison. While I read her work as an undergraduate student, I came to revisit her work in relation to memory studies - a field in which she has much to offer but gained little recognition.

In the following passage, Toni Morrison reflects on writing, the joys of editing, and the need to let go of fear.

Q. You have said that writing is a solitary activity. Do you go into steady seclusion when you're writing, so that your feelings are sort of contained, or do you have to get away, and go out shopping and ... ?

A: I do all of it. I've been at this book [Beloved] for three years. I go out shopping, and I stare, and I do whatever. It goes away. Sometimes it's very intense and I walk - I mean, I write a sentence and I jump up and run outside or something; it sort of beats you up. And sometimes I don't. Sometimes I write long hours every day. I get up at 5:30 and just go do it, and if I don't like it the next day, I throw it away. But I sit down and do it. By now I know how to get to that place where something is working. I didn't always know; I thought every thought I had was interesting - because it was mine. Now I know better how to throwaway things that are not useful. I can stand around and do other things and think about it at the same time. I don't mind not writing every minute; I'm not so terrified.

When you first start writing - and I think its true for a lot of beginning writers - you're scared to death that if you don't get that sentence right that minute it's never going to show up again. And it isn't. But it doesn't matter - another one will, and it'll probably be better. And I don't mind writing badly for a couple of days because I know I can fix it - and fix it again and again and again, and it will be better. I don't have the hysteria that used to accompany some of those dazzling passages that I thought the world was just dying for me to remember. I'm a little more sanguine about it now. Because the best part of it all, the absolutely most delicious part, is finishing it and then doing it over. That's the thrill of a lifetime for me: if I can just get done with that first phase and then have infinite time to fix it and change it. I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it looks like I never did. I try to make it look like I never touched it, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of sweat.

For more information, check out Toni Morrison's article The Site of Memory.

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