Writing Routines

Toni Morrison’s Writing Routine: “What do I need in order to release my imagination?”

Toni Morrison was an American author and editor, best-known for her novels The Bluest EyeSong of Solomon; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved; as well as for winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

Toni Morrison, The Art of Fiction No. 134 | Paris Review

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Throughout her career, Toni Morrison was never able to dedicate herself solely to her books. In between her writing, editing job at Random House and teaching role at Princeton University, as well as raising her children (Harold Ford and Slade Kevin), the Nobel Prize-winning author often had to steal time away to work.

It seems as though this method of writing worked best for Morrison. In a 1980 interview with the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin, she recounted a story about going away to the countryside with a friend to just focus on writing. After staying there for a couple of weeks, the two came back empty-handed. No writing was done during that entire period.

A similar instance occurred when her work schedule at Random House changed and Morrison found herself at home during the day. “I was distracted by the place, which I was seeing for the first time—not a day off or a holiday, but a long period of being home regularly without having to travel from place to place, without having anything else to do,” she recalled. “It was startling, and I didn’t work at all.”

For Morrison, juggling her various roles is all she’s ever known. In 1965, the esteemed author began working as an editor at L. W. Singer, a textbook division of Random House, in Syracuse, New York. Two years later, she became the first black female senior editor in the fiction department at Random House. It was around this time that she began working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye, waking up at 4am every morning to write for a few hours before heading off to her day job.

In a 1998 interview with Salon, Morrison explained how she managed to find pockets of time during the day to work (or at least think) about her writing.

They do anything that they can. They organize it. And you learn how to use time. You don’t have to learn how to wash the dishes every time you do that. You already know how to do that. So, while you’re doing that, you’re thinking. You know, it doesn’t take up your whole mind. Or just on the subway. I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in that packed train, where you can’t do anything anyway. Well, you can read the paper, but you’re sort of in there. And then I would think about, well, would she do this? And then sometimes I’d really get something good. By the time I’d arrived at work, I would jot it down so I wouldn’t forget. It was a very strong interior life that I developed for the characters, and for myself, because something was always churning. There was no blank time.

The Salon Interview – Toni Morrison | Salon

Toni Morrison’s daily writing routine

After years of waking up before sunrise to write, Morrison found in later years that the early hours of the morning suited her creativity. “The habit of getting up early, which I had formed when the children were young, now became my choice,” she once said. “I am not very bright or very witty or very inventive after the sun goes down.”

The first thing she did upon waking up in the morning was make herself a cup of coffee, and drink it while watching the sun rise. “For me, light is the signal in the transition,” she explained. “It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.”

Morrison would then begin her work, she would always start by writing longhand on a yellow pad, after which she’d type it up on the computer, and then print it out to mark up her changes. “I’m not picky, but my preference is for yellow legal pads and a nice number two pencil,” she revealed.

In 1993, during a conversation with The Paris Review, Morrison described to Elissa Schappell and Claudia Brodsky Lacour what her dream writing routine would look like.

I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out—life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.

Toni Morrison, The Art of Fiction No. 134 | The Paris Review

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1 Comment

  • Just another writer
    January 29, 2023 at 07:45

    Lovely Toni Morrison. It’s comforting to know that other writers with a 9 to 5 struggle for writing time.


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