Category Archives: Writing

Toni Morrison on (not) writing a memoir

From a recent interview on her latest book, God Help the Child. The entire interview is worth listening to.

Contemporary writing is very, very different from say 20 years ago. It’s very self-referential and very inward you know. It might be a consequence of creative writing classes where you’re told “write what you know.” And people know their lives and their friends and their family, so they write very self-referential texts. You know, I always force my students: immediately I say do not write what you know because you don’t know anything. I want you to write about someone you invent. So if you get to the point, say in 2010-2015, where you’re being asked to eliminate every other point of view except yours – when you write your novel, when you write your poems – nothing in the world impacts on you except your personal experience and the way in which you might be able to extrapolate that into something else – I mean it’s like that in the movies, everywhere. It’s really boring. I was asked by my publisher before I published this book to do a two-book contract and write a memoir and I said okay. And then I thought about it and I thought, “oh dear, I can’t do that.” First of all, it’s boring. I know all of that. I know every bit of it. So, there’s nothing new there. I want something new. [Laughs.] Not going to re-tell some old stories, uh! I would fall asleep in the act of it! Maybe someone else wants to go and do that. I cannot do that, you know.

Writing to grow

Having your thoughts published on the internet, or wherever, is a revealing endeavor that leaves one feeling exposed. What if the great idea turns out to be ridiculous, trivial, incoherent, or even racist? Maybe it’s best to just keep silent and comfortable. It’s this point that I’d like to highlight.

A great deal of our ideas about how the world works are what guide our activities, guide our notions of how success (in whatever form) is obtained. When your thoughts are exposed, your life is exposed. So keeping your ideas private are ways we keep ourselves safe, continuing on as we always have. If I open myself up to criticism, my path could change at any moment, derailing my current vision of how the world works, how things are, where I am going and how I will get there. But I believe that opening yourself up to the wisdom and experiences of others is also one of the practices that fosters the most growth. Your ideas will either be met with agreement or disagreement by a community. It’s nice when others like your ideas. But disagreement opens up the realm of choice and deliberate thinking: am I right? why do I think I am right? What do those whom I deem wise say of my ideas? The answers that you give to these questions fundamentally orient your vision, either by entrenching yourself in your position or altering your course.

Disagreements, then, can either be looked at as opportunities to change or to hold your position. The choice is yours. And, remember, it is a choice. One of the freest kinds of choices we have: choose to change or stay the same. The disagreement is the signal that a choice must be made.

So — Write, listen, and make your choice.

One more reason to read the endnotes

I think I often do my best writing in footnotes and endnotes. In a footnote there is less of the feeling that the words are graven in stone, and there’s something very freeing about that. It seems that something similar may be going on for Stanley Hauerwas:

“[This] is but another indication that ethics at best is only bad poetry – that is, it seeks to help us see what we see every day but fail to see rightly. Put differently, ethics is an attempt to help us feel the oddness of the everyday. If ethicists had talent, they might be poets, but in the absence of talent, they try to make their clanking conceptual and discursive claims do the work of art.”
-Stanley Hauerwas, Community of Character, 246n59