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The tour de force that was Toni Morrison offers many bits of wisdom to those who watch her film biography TONI MORRISON: THE PIECES I AM and sigh over her monumental talent. First, she was a renowned editor. Writers and editors generally belong in separate camps due to the differing demands of the jobs. Few writers can contribute meaningfully to another writer’s work without longing to match the material they’re editing to their own preferences. Even fewer can improve someone else’s writing without impacting the style. In addition, editing is the job of an exquisite observer. Toni Morrison could step out of her point of view to do a better than admirable job of editing. In fact, at first few knew she could write. She understood the underpinnings of good literature.
The genius that allowed Toni Morrison to step out of her point of view also intensified her eye for the human condition—even when that human condition lay distant from her own life experience. As a professor, she advised new writers to write what they did NOT know—people they had never met from places they had never visited. She knew we see most acutely in the unfamiliar when we’re forced to investigate what lies before us. She wrote about black people, but her stories penetrated the soul of humanity and resonate across the globe.
Finally, Morrison felt no compunction to write to please anyone beyond herself. She wrote about black girls and black men, the drama of mothers in slavery, and the struggle of the forgotten in prose that was nonlinear. She wrote of circumstances that would tear at the peace of sensitive readers because hers were real circumstances that happened to real people although she dressed them in fiction. She wasn’t preaching, but neither was she shying away from what we wish were inhuman situations. She wrote from within her characters, ripping them open for the reader to share their lives.
When Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, there were many who wanted to believe she didn’t deserve it in spite of her other awards—the National Book Critics Circle Award for SONG OF SOLOMON and the Pulitzer Prize for BELOVED. Those were the readers who couldn’t or wouldn’t empathize with the wrenching reality she wrote or the magnificent, original prose she used to write it. Toni Morrison wrote and lived with integrity. Her life wasn’t always comfortable, but she knew who she was and had her finger firmly on the pulse of her gifts. Aspiring writers would be foolish to skip reading her works or watching her biography. Her shadow is long.
In awe of her before, the documentary opened my eyes to her determination. In these tender times, it’s interesting to me to regard others and note their progress within our badly formed society. Morrison, as you so perfectly state, goes where most of us would never go, but not just in her narratives – in her own life. I am thankful for her. Thanks for this, Susan.