I am thrilled to welcome Jillian Medoff to Great Thoughts’ Great Authors today. You may recall me gushing last week about her book, I Couldn’t Love You More. My review is here. I love this guest post as I am a huge fan of Toni Morrison (who isn’t?).
When I was in graduate school, I took a master class with Toni Morrison. This was twenty years ago, but she had already published many of her greatest works, including the masterpiece novel Beloved and my favorite, Song of Solomon. She was a formidable presence, one of the world’s truly great authors, and this class, I knew, was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. About 20 of us signed up for the two-hour seminar. Oddly, we were all women. Ms. Morrison—if you’ve ever seen her speak, you’ll understand why I absolutely cannot refer to her as “Toni.” She is as breathtaking and majestic as her books, and to address her so familiarly is unthinkable—made a funny remark about the lack of men in the room, and then launched into a story about her own life as a writer.
Toni Morrison was a working mother who wrote novels on the sly. She taught at Howard University, and worked as an editor at Random House, but what she really wanted to do was write novels. Unfortunately, she said, when she was growing up, and even as an adult, it was unfathomable for a woman, especially a divorced woman with two children, to consider fiction-writing a legitimate occupation. “No one gave me permission to be a writer,” she explained, so after working all day, after making dinner, after helping her kids with their homework and putting them to bed, she stayed up late into the night, crafting her stories. Ms. Morrison was witty and warm, and that morning, she spoke to the 20 of us very casually, almost intimately. At one point, though, she got serious. “Over the course of your careers,” she said, pausing to look at each of us, “you will be pulled in many different directions. You’ll be wives and mothers, you’ll have jobs. You’ll have aging parents, hungry children—someone will always need something from you. But if you really want to be a writer—if you need to write, if you must write—then right here and right now, I give you permission to write.”
The past twenty years have been very difficult for me, career-wise. I sold my first novel to a publisher for a lot of money that was made into a TV movie. Five years later, though, my second novel came out and promptly tanked—we couldn’t give that book away—and I spent the next ten years suffering one rejection after another, as I tried, desperately, to get myself back on track. There were so many moments when I wanted to quit. I had a husband, I had a job, I had children, I had aging parents—someone always needed something from me. But still, I continued to sit at my computer and work on my books, day after day after day. Why? Because twenty years ago, when I was young writer in a one-day workshop, Toni Morrison gave me permission.
What are you reading and where are you going?