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2.12.12

Toni Morrison's Writing Routine

From a 1993 interview with The Paris Review
Toni Morrison
Elissa Schappell talks to Toni Morrison for The Paris Review (with additional material from Claudia Brodsky Lacour):
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?

Toni 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 while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the 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 that I can only call nonsecular . . . 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 transition. 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 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?

Toni 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?

Toni 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?

Toni 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?

Toni Morrison: Sometimes something that I was having some trouble with falls into place, a word sequence, say, so I’ve written on scraps of paper, in hotels on hotel stationery, in automobiles. If it arrives you know. If you know it really has come, then you have to put it down. [Read More]
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