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.
Pam: Once you've begun the actual novel, are there specific things you do to invite these images? Do you build a kind of structure for them to fall into?
Toni: Usually there is a "what if" that might resolve the narrative, but the narrative is less interesting to me than the architecture, the language, all the other things that I can bring into the so-called story. For Paradise, I had heard this story in Brazil. There was a school, a convent for black nuns—young girls—and they were found to be secretly practicing candomblé [an Afro-Brazilian religion based on the anima, or soul, of nature] in the basement. The story was that the police shot all of these girls, when they were found not doing the Catholic thing. I saw them in my mind running away from the convent, running through the fields, running away from the bullets, running from men...so I recast it as a question: Who would shoot a bunch of women and why?
For Love it was wondering about what year fashion models began opening their legs for the camera. A fashion historian told me it was 1975. He knew the name of the model, the photographer, the designer, and the dress.
I have an ongoing interest in outlaw women. They can be wild or they can be ordinary women who learn something fresh. I like very much to see them under duress. I like to see who survives this awful mess, who makes the best decisions, who is left and under what circumstances. If your character knows something at the end of a book she didn't know at the beginning, she is in a better position. Everybody wants a happy ending, but the real happy ending is when somebody really figures something out.
I gave a commencement address at Princeton where I told the graduates that I wished them happiness but they shouldn't settle for that—it wasn't good enough, it wasn't important enough. I am always accused of being too bleak, too sad. I thought the end of Paradise was transcendent! Beautiful! Everyone got to see who they were mad at. What could be better than that?
Pam: David Mamet describes writing as an attempt to "lessen the unbearable disparity between the conscious and unconscious mind and so to achieve peace." Do you think your horses "standing up like men" came from the deep recesses of your subconscious, or from some other place, some artistic collective unconscious that is always whispering out there, waiting for the writer to figure out how to hear?
Toni: What I feel most is that because I am open and available, the universe—the idea—comes to me. It feels a little like being called. I felt it very strongly with Song of Solomon. I had agreed to write the book and I was intimidated because I had never written about men—I'd written about a man, but not about men and how they really think. Then my father died, and I was sad about that, and I remember sitting down and thinking, "I wonder what my father knew about those men." And this feeling of assurance came over me that I would know—I didn't know all of it then, but I felt suddenly certain that whatever I needed to know was going to be there.
It's that being open—not scratching for it, not digging for it, not constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting that what you don't know will be available to you. It is bigger than your overt consciousness or your intelligence or even your gifts; it is out there somewhere and you have to let it in.
Pam: And does being open in that way to your writing spill over into other areas of your life?
Toni: I feel more friendly when I am writing, nicer to people, much more generous, also wiser. I am full of a kind of tenderness toward people and all they have to hide, all they have to construct. Not pity, not sympathy, just tenderness. Knowing that the job of being a human is so hard, and it is the only job there is left—though we keep on pretending otherwise. If I am in that good place and I run into someone I dislike, I feel more human and they seem more human.
Toni: Precisely. I keep telling everyone whenever I get a chance that it took 60 million years to make a human eye. And before that even, it was just a little cell at the bottom of the ocean that was sensitive to light. Just think of how complicated and truly magnificent a human being is. When you think of all we are capable of—being able to love each other, and being willing to do something good in the world for no recognition...I am not saying there are not people who want to step over each other, who want to maim and kill, but that is a perversion of the beautiful things human beings are made for.
There are all sorts of ways people try to stay connected, try not to live in hate. Religion may be one of them, but for me the central thing is the writing. The art itself. Putting my intelligence and my humanity to the best possible use, and I get better because I am doing it. The writing teaches me that I can't just reach some little plateau and say that's it, this is the place. It is always a search.
Pam: And that is the good news.
Toni: That is the good news.
Pam Houston teaches writing at the University of California, Davis.