Support, advice, and distractions for struggling writers
Writers on Writing: Toni Morrison
It’s been quite a while since I last wrote a “Writers on Writing” post, so I’ve decided to revive the series with a special double-quote post on Toni Morrison. Morrison is a celebrated American writer who has won the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and many, many more accolades. She penned such classics as The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, the last of which was made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. For more information as this influential writer and activist, be sure to check out her Wikipedia entry.
I’m more than a little ashamed to admit that I’ve never read any of Morrison’s work. I haven’t even seen the Oprah Winfrey movie. I plan to remedy that sooner rather than later. Still, I do know Morrison as a black feminist activist, someone who has worked hard for equality for African Americans and women alike. While I would love to discuss her contributions in those regards, I don’t feel like I’m the right person for that. Instead, I will be focusing on two of her quotes on writing.
Here’s the first:
If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.
This quote is so well-loved and well-shared by writers that you’ve probably seen it floating around Twitter and Facebook in meme form. Why not? It’s very true and, after reading it, seems a bit obvious. If the book you want to read hasn’t been written yet, why don’t you write it? Odds are if you want to read it, other people will want to read it, too.
There’s a catch to that. Once you’ve written it, others can judge it. Heck, while you’re writing it, others can judge it and try to influence its final form. If you’re not careful and don’t filter which readers you listen to, you may find that the book you write is not at all the book you originally wanted to read or even the one you want to read now.
That’s where the second Morrison quote comes in:
I’m not entangled in shaping my work according to other people’s views of how I should have done it.
Morrison is essentially saying that she doesn’t let other people’s opinions what she “should” write hold too much sway over what she actually writes. If she had listened to what other people thought when she first started writing, she wouldn’t be the prolific writer we praise today. If she listens to what people tell her now, she might as well stop writing because her voice will be drowned out.
The world wants to hear your voice in your writing, not the same old voices it’s heard a million times before. What would be the point in writing the book you want to read if you don’t write it the way you think it should be written?
Many books we deem “classics” today were heavily-criticized, if not flat-out failures, during their first rounds of publication. Moby-Dick certainly wasn’t well-loved, nor was The Catcher in the Rye or The Lord of the Rings trilogy. J.K. Rowling’s agent even told her not to quit her day job. That’s not counting all of the works by minority writers trying to give a voice to non-Caucasian, heterosexual, cisgender, Christian males. We still have a problem with these works being criticized just because they don’t fall under the norm.
Morrison could not have hit the nail on the head with any better precision. Writers shouldn’t only write the books they want to read; they should write them in their voices with their visions. Yes, it’s important to listen to constructive feedback. After all, that’s how we learn as writers. Nevertheless, if advice feels so against the grain of our vision and our voice, how much credence should we give it? If we let others have too much say over how and what we write, it won’t be our writing anymore.
What do you think? Should we write the books we want to read or only the books that we “know” will sell? How much influence should other readers have on how we write? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Know of any writers or quotes I should feature in a future “Writers on Writing”? Drop a line here or e-mail me with your suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.