Junot Díaz, Dominican-American Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, sat down with famed literary giant Toni Morrison, author of at least one book on your top ten list of literary classics, for a one-on-one discussion at New York Public Library, about what it is like to be a literary Goddess – to which Morrison responded, “bow down snitches…”
No, she did not say that. However both Morrison and Díaz did offer some very keen insight into their writing processes, some of which I found very helpful and pretty accurate. As black writers, there is always pressure to choose words carefully; to understand the double consciousness of writing in a black voice when there might be “other” on-lookers. We want to be empowering, but the pressure of protectionism sometimes gets in the way of the truth.
So in the interest of giving us something to mull on as writers (and I mean all kinds of writers), here is my list of three takeaways from the Morrison/ Díaz discussion, which could help us to create from a more truthful and authentic space:
Learn to Write in Your Own Voice: I think as black writers, there is always a desire to write like somebody else – and it’s usually our favorites like Baldwin, or Walker, or hooks or McMillan, etc. I am guilty of it and have torn up many copies because of it. I think we do this because we are looking to appeal to the same audience that these writers appealed too. But the thing is, the world already has them. What’s missing is our unique perspective. In the discussion Morrison, who prior to becoming a world renowned author worked as an editor for Random House, talked about the importance of writing in your own voice. She said that as an editor, who was vital in publishing of the works of Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Henry Dumas and Muhammad Ali, she could always tell when a black writer was writing with the white gaze in mind. And how that fear of the white gaze, has left many black writers restraint in the sharing of their experiences, including some slave narratives, which Morrison said were written in voices to not offend white people. “You write a book called invisible man, but who is he invisible to,” she remarks. Morrison said that when she went searching for black authors to publish, she often went with writers, who were unapologetic about what they are and unconcerned about who might be their audience might be. “Once you take your own area, in your own soil and dig deep into that, and you get good enough at that, it is available to everybody you don’t have to direct it at a vague audience, which you think perhaps is not yours.”
Get to Know Your Characters – Really Intimately: One thing you will note is that throughout this entire discussion, Morrison talks about her characters as if they were living, breathing actualized human beings. In fact, she actually says: “The act of writing, you do get to know the characters really well. Some people say, writers have all sorts of ways they say that mystery happens. To me, they are sort of like ghosts. They’re palpable; I know what they look like even although I maybe can’t describe them. They talk. And if they are not talking to me then I don’t have their names right or something’s wrong. But I can hear their speech, what they say what they think. I don’t want to sound too goofy. Some of them you have to tell to shut up because like many ghosts they don’t have any conversation except about themselves…”
If There Are Ghosts In Your Stories, Make Sure Everything Else is Absolutely Accurate: Any kind of writing – I don’t care if it is Street Lit or The Bluest Eye – needs scholarship. And I’m not talking theory but basic info like: does this street actually exist in the city I’m writing about? Or are the people, locations and timelines of historic events, which I used in my story, accurate? During the discussion, Morrison talks about spending time in libraries, reading and doing lots of research into the things that she wanted to write about. Morrison also spoke about how she not only understood that some readers liked to go and actually research some of the details she’d mention, which added legitimacy for that reader, but that those details help to design more three dimensional characters and stories. I think this was my absolute favorite part of the discussion as Díaz, who admits to being heavy on nerdish, seemingly unrelated details in his work, shared his similar thoughts about the importance of scholarship: “Books invite us to read them in certain ways. And I think that it is important for readers to resist the immediate invitation. So I always thought, especially when I wrote the novel Oscar Wao, Oscar Wao invites people to read the book, as if all of that as if the non-stop nerd references, were sort of just there, sort of to just confuse you [Morrison: it did]…what’s really fascinating is that a book about a dictatorship; a dictatorship is all about you granting authority to a narrative. And people are far more likely to grant authority to something that looks very official, and sounds very official, than something that seems very frivolous and pop cultural.”
You can watch the discussion in is entirety in the video below or here. There is lots of other good non-writing process-related stuff in this discussion that is worth checking out, particularly her thoughts on the revolutionary act of motherhood. But that is a whole other essay, waiting to be written…