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How Toni Morrison is a Writer & You Can Be Anything

January 30, 2017

I caught an NPR interview with novelist Toni Morrison as I was driving home yesterday.

Did you know that Toni Morrison – the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom winning writer (among a million other awards) did not start writing until she was 39 years old?!

Also her real name is Chloe but it accidentally changed to Toni, which is short for her confirmation name St. Anthony, because no one knew how to pronounce Chloe in those days. This was pre Kardashians.

Anyway Toni Morrison – who wrote Beloved, and The Bluest Eye, and Song of Solomon and Sula, for starters, did not begin her writing career until she was almost 40 years old.

And that – though fascinating – doesn’t hold a candle to the story of how she started.

Sometime in the late 50s or maybe early 60s Toni Morrison was teaching at Howard University. She has a BA in English from Howard and Master of Arts from Cornell, so she went back to Howard to teach. She didn’t know many colleagues or have many friends when she started at Howard so she decided to join an informal group of writers and poets that met to review their work. She didn’t have any work at that point, but she figured she could write some in order to spend time with these people. As she described on this radio interview I stumbled upon, the group was good and the people were nice but, “the lunch they served was really delicious. Really delicious.” She dreamed about that lunch, she explained. And so she had to keep writing new things to share with the group because you weren’t allowed to go if you didn’t have new writing each time. But the more she wrote – again, for the treat of this delicious lunch – the more she realized that she loved writing.

But Toni Morrison wasn’t convinced. This wasn’t the beginning of a new career in her mind, she explained.

Then one week she brought some new pages about a new character to the lunch group (which was a writing group, except to Toni). The character was a little black girl who longed to have blue eyes. The group loved the character and encouraged Toni to keep writing this story. Toni realized that she loved this character, too. She enjoyed working on this story more than any others so far, but it didn’t all click until one day when she was writing while holding her newborn son. Toni Morrison – future Princeton University professor – had baby Harold in one hand and a yellow legal pad in the other, furiously scribbling down more about this story about this little black girl with blue eyes. Then Harold threw up – all over the yellow legal pad. “And I just kept on writing,” she said. “I looked down a few minutes later and I’d written right around the vomit stain.”

And that is when she knew.

It took Toni Morrison five years to write her first novel because she did it while teaching undergrads and holding babies and maintaining a house hold. By that point she wasn’t doing it for the delicious lunches, but if not for them who knows how her life story would have unfolded.

There’s a school of thought that says Toni Morrison was destined to become a writer and, if not yummy lunch, then something else would have lead her to that end. That’s possible and lovely, but I like to focus on young professor Morrison writing a little fiction because she’s hoping to meet some friends at her new job. I like the idea of her taking the small brave step and continuing to let it unfold.

I think I like it because I think I need it right now.

After the Toni Morrison interview, NPR tossed to a live report from people protesting Trump’s Muslim travel ban at LAX airport. The reporter interviewed a woman who said, “I’m 35. I’ve never protested anything in my life, but this is the fifth protest I’ve attended since Trump was elected.”

A political protest and a delicious lunch aren’t the same, I know. But in both circumstances a new door opened and a person walked through – and kept walking.

Will this woman protesting at LAX become a United States Senator in ten years? Who knows. Did Toni Morrison think she’d win a Pulitzer Prize when she showed up to writer’s group lunch for the first time?

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