The world lost one of the greatest novelists in history on Aug. 5, 2019, when Nobel laureate Toni Morrison died in New York City at 88. Born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison rose to literary greatness through novels like The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Beloved, and Tar Baby. Her novels sang with poetry and explored Black American history and the reality of discrimination, segregation, and slavery in ways that few other writers had up to that point.
Morrison’s legendary talent received critical acclaim at every turn. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016, among many other accolades. Morrison also left behind her legacy as a professor emeritus at Princeton University and as an editor at Random House, where she cultivated the work of other greats like Angela Davis and Gayl Jones.
The legacy of Morrison’s stunningly sad and poetically searing work lives on alongside the many insightful interviews she gave over the years about her writing, politics, and method. Here are just a few of the many lessons other writers can learn from this literary legend.
#1: Write the Book You Most Want to See in the World
One of Morrison’s most inspiring quotes is about writing the book you’d most want to read yourself: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must write it.”
Morrison’s first novel was The Bluest Eye (1970), which tackled issues like racist beauty standards, poverty, and childhood trauma, all focused on the main character of Pecola from Lorain, Ohio in the early 1940s. In fact, all of Morrison’s work highlighted Black protagonists, usually women, and dealt with heavy themes that often get sidestepped.
Over the years, Morrison has made it clear that she wrote the books she never got to read as a child. Although she’d always loved literature, she rarely saw herself in the protagonists, and it was clear that most of the literary canon was not written for or by Black women like herself. She encouraged her students to look for the gaps in the existing canon, especially the ones that most spoke to them, and to fill them with their own words.
#2: Don’t Be Afraid to Write for Your Audience
In addition to writing what you’d most like to read, Morrison also encouraged writers (especially those from marginalized backgrounds) to write for their own people, and to be entirely unapologetic for it.
In 2015, Morrison told a reporter at The Guardian, “I’m writing for black people in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio.” While she was sometimes asked why she focused so exclusively on Black characters in her work, she claimed her identity as a Black female writer with strength and conviction. Morrison said that this made her work stronger as a result, never falling into the wishy-washy trap of universality.
Remember that if you write for everyone, you usually write for no one. Morrison’s work became so universally read partly because it was so deeply specific. That added to, rather than diminishing, its appeal to all readers.
#3: It’s Never Too Late to Start
Many readers and writers are surprised to learn that Morrison didn’t publish her first book until she was 39 years old, in 1970. While “30-under-30” lists and hordes of young MFA students can make some writers feel left out of the literary community, Morrison’s immense success proves that there’s no wrong time to begin your artistic career. In fact, the wealth of academic, personal, and professional experiences she brought to the table by the time she wrote her first novel strengthened and sharpened her voice.
If you’re feeling discouraged by your age, just remember that writing can be a long game and that there’s no set timeline on creating and sharing your work.
#4: Practice Diligently and Study Your Craft
Morrison was a great proponent of diligent practice, careful study, and the importance of the editing process. In a 1993 interview for The Paris Review, Morrison explained: “I thought of myself as like the jazz musician — someone who practices and practices and practices in order to be able to invent and to make his art look effortless and graceful. I was always conscious of the constructed aspect of the writing process, and that art appears natural and elegant only as a result of constant practice and awareness of its formal structures.”
While writing can appear effortless once a work has already been polished, that’s just part of the illusion. Great novels can cast a spell over the reader, creating immersive worlds that seem to fall seamlessly into place.
But, as Morrison explains, the process of getting there is anything but seamless. The most carefully constructed fictional worlds, written by the most diligent and well-practiced hands, are the ones that often appear the least constructed once they’re finished.
#5: Empower Other Artists
As an editor and teacher, Morrison championed the work of other Black writers, especially Black women. She famously shared, “I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”
Although most writers don’t have the kind of influence and power that Morrison had, there is always a way to be a better literary citizen. Reading others’ work, from their latest essay in a new issue of your favorite literary magazine to their just-released novel, is a good start. Helping and boosting other writers a good way to be part of a supportive literary community, and it’s also a great way to improve your own work and hone your voice.
#6: Time Your Writing Well
In Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: A Casebook, Morrison wrote of the process of writing Beloved: “…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 my children were young, now became my choice. I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.” She went on to describe her morning ritual, and of the importance of finding one’s own writing pattern and sticking to it for best results.
Many of the world’s best writers have shared this exact tip, pointing out the importance of finding the time that works best for you and making it a regular part of every day. Making writing into a habit, based around your own circadian rhythms, is one of the surest ways to craft consistently solid work. While creativity can be spontaneous, it often functions best in a container.