Toni Morrison: “She took the leap and quit her publishing job to make her living as a writer.”

From The Writer’s Almanac:

Today is the birthday of novelist Toni Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. In her late 20s she returned to teach at her alma mater, Howard University, and she joined a local writers’ group. . . .

She needed a piece of writing for one of her meetings, so she wrote a story about a young black girl who desperately wanted to have blue eyes. Everyone liked it, but she soon put the story aside. Morrison got divorced and moved with her two young sons to Syracuse, New York. She found a job editing textbooks, and then as an editor at Random House. She moved to Queens, where she lived in a small house so close to the jet-landing lane at JFK airport that everything rattled every time a plane landed.

She wanted to read a good novel about the effects of racism on the most vulnerable people, but she couldn’t find the book she wanted to read, so she finally decided to write it. She got out her old story from the writing group and began to expand it. She would wake up at 4 a.m. to write, go to work, come home and make dinner and take care of her boys, and return to writing once they were asleep. She said of those days:

“That was a liberation. There were two areas of total freedom for me. One has to do with my children, because they were the only ones who I knew who were not making insane demands on me […] But the writing was the real freedom, because nobody told me what to do there. That was my world and my imagination. And all my life it’s been that way.”

Eventually, she decided to send out her manuscript and received a lot of formulaic rejection postcards. One of her former students, Claude Brown, had recently published Manchild in the Promised Land, and he introduced her to his editor, who recommended Morrison’s book for publication. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970, when Morrison was 39 years old.

She continued working for Random House, raising her sons, and writing. She published three more novels, and then in 1983 she decided to take the leap and quit her publishing job to make her living as a writer. She went and sat on her porch, watching the Hudson River. She didn’t feel calm, like she expected, but anxious — she wasn’t sure what she was feeling. She said, “Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment. It was a purer delight, a rogue anticipation with certainty.”

High on this new feeling, she went to work on a new novel. Ten years earlier she had helped compile and publish The Black Book (1974), an anthology of archival materials about the African-American experience. While she was working on The Black Book, she had found a short article about Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who killed her two-year-old daughter rather than see the girl returned to slavery. Morrison said, “I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what ‘free’ could possibly mean to women.”

She drew on Margaret Garner’s story for her new novel, which was published as Beloved (1987) and won the Pulitzer Prize. She won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. On August 5, 2019 Toni Morrison died at age 88.

Her novels include Song of Solomon (1977), Paradise (1997), Love (2003), A Mercy (2008), Home (2012), and her final novel, God Help the Child (2015).

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