Photo: L. Buscacca/WireImage.com
Pam Houston considers her ongoing talks about writing with Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison to be among the great joys of her life. Recently, she and Morrison discussed those times a writer lives for, when she is able to enter that fluid space of inspiration where one good line keeps following another. In a voice as eloquent as it is playful, Morrison described ways those moments of grace manifest, both on the page and in her life.
Pam Houston: Lots has been written about the difficulty of writing, how murderous it is to face a blank page, but how does it feel when it goes well, what do you think is activated when it all starts to come together?
Toni Morrison: Yeah. That is a beautiful sort of open and closed world. Open because anything can happen, and you don't always know, you are just eager to follow, and closed because it is yours, completely yours, and other things outside of it are very secondary, almost irrelevant.
After I finished The Bluest Eye, which took me five years to write, I went into a long period of...not deep depression but a kind of melancholy. Then I had another idea for a book, Sula, where I was trying to write about real friendship between women—and the whole world came alive again. Everything I saw or did was potentially data, a word or a sound or something for the book, and then I really realized that for me writing meant having something coherent in the world. And that feels like...not exactly what I was born for, it's more the thing that holds me in the world in healthy relationship, with language, with people, bits of everything filter down, and I can stay here. Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings...everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder.
Right now I have been thinking about a time, a place, some characters I want to write about. And then one day I got this powerful image of horses fighting. The sentence I heard was "They stood up like men." So I followed that. This little kid and his sister are watching the horses, and the scene holds something terrifying, awe-inspiring, enviable, for them.
I thought to myself, "What am I talking about? I've never seen horses fighting. Do they even stand up?" So I ran around and I got some films, and of course horses bite a lot when they fight, but they do stand up.
I don't know where it came from—this picture of the horses—but once it was there, I knew the kid, this character who is a child, who is black and vulnerable and living in the '50s in a place where race circumscribes him. And the look of the horses is one thing—and the violence involved—but the other thing is the "like men" part of the sentence, the "how to be a man" part; that notion is what is important to the boy. So I go forward...starting out with an image, even if I don't know yet how to squeeze it, how to use it. It is trusting that picture that keeps me going.