Few writers consistently and exuded as much visionary force as beloved author Toni Morrison, who has died today at the age of 88. The author of 11 novels, she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, having published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970.
In her stunning Nobel prize acceptance speech (which you can read and listen to in full right here on Nothing in the Rulebook), she said: “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”
As the tributes to this towering force within literature flow in, we have gathered together some of her finest pieces of advice – for writers, as well as for human beings.
1. The past is not over
In what is perhaps the finest ‘commencement’ address of all time, in her speech at Wellesley College in May 2004, Morrison considered the insufficiency of blindly turning to the past in remedying the present:
“The past is already in debt to the mismanaged present. And besides, contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets.”
2. Reject labels
In that same speech (which is full of timely, and at the same time, ageless, advice), the author also turns her attention to the idea of identity – and the importance of deciding who you are for yourself:
“You don’t have to accept those media labels. You need not settle for any defining category. You don’t have to be merely a taxpayer or a red state or a blue state or a consumer or a minority or a majority.”
3. Fail creatively
In an interview with NEA Arts Magazine, Morrison acknowledges one of the certainties of life (particularly of a writer’s life) – failure. And how to define your own relationship with it.
“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.”
4. Find out how to release your imagination
In an interview with The Paris Review, Morrison muses upon the most effective ways of unleashing your imagination and your creative juices.
“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?”
5. Never forget the importance of writers to mankind
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we’re quite big fans of this one – taken from her collection of non-fiction essays and speeches, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations.
“Writers — journalists, essayists, bloggers, poets, playwrights — can disturb the social oppression that functions like a coma on the population, a coma despots call peace, and they stanch the blood flow of war that hawks and profiteers thrill to.
Certain kinds of trauma visited on peoples are so deep, so cruel, that unlike money, unlike vengeance, even unlike justice, or rights, or the goodwill of others, only writers can translate such trauma and turn sorrow into meaning, sharpening the moral imagination. A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.