By almost any standard, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison has led an extraordinary life. I’d love to read the story only she could tell about any segment of this story: born 1931 into a working class family in Lorain, Ohio; educated at Howard and Cornell Universities; taught at various universities (the last being Princeton); an editor at Random House; a literary giant with the publication of The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Song of Solomon and Beloved, the latter book, especially, an epic achievement. By most reckonings, she is the undisputed queen of American literature.
Her private life she has tried to keep private. After her marriage to Jamaica-born architect Harold Morrison ended, she brought up two sons as a single mother while accomplishing all of the above. Anne Lamott has shown that this story can be utterly fascinating to readers. (Her new memoir, following another called Operating Instructions, is called Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son, debuts tomorrow, March 20.)
Last week Morrison spoke at Oberlin College in Ohio and was asked if she would write a memoir. Her answer should give all of us aspiring memoirists pause. She said she had agreed to write a memoir requested by her publisher, but that she had decided not to follow through. She offered this explanation:
“My publisher asked me to do it, but there’s a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me. I’d rather write fiction.”
She went on to advise writers to reverse the usual “write what you know” mantra and to “write what you don’t know. And never be scared.” (Via The Guardian.)
When I shared this news on my facebook writer’s page, Karin Larson pointed out that if you compare the story above to some of the main characters in Morrison’s novels, she may have a good point.
After all, some of them fly, are born without navels, and otherwise contain seemingly supernatural gifts.
But to her fans, the novelist herself seems to contain supernatural gifts. We would like to reflect on how she was born a navel-less child and how she learned to fly.
Some lucky biographer will get to tell this story instead. I hope she is already at work, interviewing her fascinating subject.
The rest of us can only ask: what is an interesting life? What relationship between subject and work makes memoir writing worthwhile — either between the writer and her life or the reader and the text? How does a memoirist use the advice to “write what you don’t know”? I actually find that rather inspiring advice. You?