Writing Wisdom from Toni Morrison


At LITERARY HUB, you’ll find “‘You Don’t Know Anything.’ And Other Writing Advice from Toni Morrison.” It’s a collection of writing advice Morrison gave throughout the years. And there are some doozies. For example:

“As a writer, a failure is just information. It’s something that I’ve done wrong in writing, or is inaccurate or unclear. I recognize failure—which is important; some people don’t—and fix it, because it is data, it is information, knowledge of what does not work. That’s rewriting and editing.”

About writers who complain about the process: “I just tell them: You have to do this, I don’t want to hear whining about how it’s so difficult. Oh, I don’t tolerate any of that because most of the people who’ve ever written are under enormous duress, myself being one them. So whining about how they can’t get it is ridiculous.”

Christmas Tree by James Merrill

Christmas Tree

By James Merrill


To be
Brought down at last
From the cold sighing mountain
Where I and the others
Had been fed, looked after, kept still,
Meant, I knew—of course I knew—
That it would be only a matter of weeks,
That there was nothing more to do.
Warmly they took me in, made much of me,
The point from the start was to keep my spirits up.
I could assent to that. For honestly,
It did help to be wound in jewels, to send
Their colors flashing forth from vents in the deep
Fragrant sables that cloaked me head to foot.
Over me then they wove a spell of shining—
Purple and silver chains, eavesdropping tinsel,
Amulets, milagros: software of silver,
A heart, a little girl, a Model T,
Two staring eyes. Then angles, trumpets, BUD and BEA
(The children’s names) in clownlike capitals,
Somewhere a music box whose tiny song
Played and replayed I ended before long
By loving. And in shadow behind me, a primitive IV
To keep the show going. Yes, yes, what lay ahead
Was clear: the stripping, the cold street, my chemicals
Plowed back into the Earth for lives to come—
No doubt a blessing, a harvest, but one that doesn’t bear,
Now or ever, dwelling upon. To have grown so thin.
Needles and bone. The little boy’s hands meeting
About my spine. The mother’s voice: Holding up wonderfully!
No dread. No bitterness. The end beginning. Today’s
Dusk room aglow
For the last time
With candlelight.
Faces love-lit
Gifts underfoot.
Still to be so poised, so
Receptive. Still to recall, praise.


Writing and Reading and the Invisible Forces at Play

I teach a personal development course where journal writing is a major portion of the work we do. This is a guided journal with prompts aimed at self-revelation: our strengths and weaknesses, our influences and challenges, what holds us back, what turns us on. The idea is to freewrite the answers to the prompts. No editing. No censoring. Just catch what you can on the page. And, like fishing, the more you cast your thoughts, the more likely you’ll catch something you didn’t even know existed inside you.

The idea of discovering the unknown is also true in creative writing.

In the New York Times article, “The Invisible Forces That Make Writing Work,” Roger Rosenblatt explores an interesting phenomenon of composition: the idea of hidden influences that shape a work of art:

You come up with an image, phrase or sentence. Your head snaps back, and you say to yourself, Where did that come from?! I’m not talking about automatic writing, though that may be part of it. I mean the entire range of invisible forces that produce and affect the work. There are things the writer sees that the reader does not; things the reader sees that the writer does not; and things neither of us ever sees. These, the most entrancing of the lot, have a power of their own.

Things the writer sees that the reader doesn’t.

Things the reader sees that the writer doesn’t.

Things neither sees.

The Invisible Forces That Make Writing Work” is an insightful take on the writing and reading process.



Denis Johnson’s Last Line: “And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me”—I’m surprised I let those words out.
But it’s always been my tendency to lie to doctors, as if good health consisted only of the ability to fool them.
Some years later, one time when I was admitted to the detox at Seattle General Hospital, I took the same tack.
“Are you hearing unusual sounds or voices?” the doctor asked.
“Help us, oh God, it hurts,” the boxes of cotton screamed.
“Not exactly,” I said.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Now what does that mean?”
“I’m not ready to go into all that,” I said. A yellow bird fluttered close to my face, and my muscles grabbed. Now I was flopping like a fish.

from “Car Crash While Hitchhiking”

I first heard of Denis Johnson in 1985 when a co-worker told me her sister had dated him. He was a poet she said. This was in Jacksonville, Florida, a million miles away from the world of Denis Johnson. A few years later in graduate school, Padgett Powell had us read Johnson’s first novel, Angels. It was a gritty underbelly kind of story, like glimpsing into a bus station and seeing someone with tinfoil on his head. Later, I tuned into his other novels, such as Fiskadora, which the New York Times described as “the sort of book that a young Herman Melville might have written had he lived today and studied such disparate works as the Bible, ‘The Wasteland,’ Fahrenheit 451, and Dog Soldiers, screened Star Wars and Apocalypse Now several times, dropped a lot of acid and listened to hours of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones.” And then, way after the fact, I read what most would call his masterwork, a short story collection called Jesus’ Son. I’ve read it multiple times since. Anyone who has not read Denis Johnson should start with Jesus’ Son. A blurb on the paperback gives us a clue to what special magic is going on here: “Reading these stories is like reading ticker tape from the subconscious.”

The opening story that starts the collection is a kind of storytelling you probably haven’t experienced before. Jeffrey Eugenides describes it as a story where plot matters less than the “brokenness” of the narrator’s voice, “where the personal brushes up against the eternal.” Johnson, in his youth, had been a heroin addict, and if you combine the spiritual emptiness of a druggie with a gifted poet, a  storyteller who studied under Raymond Carver and was inspired by Isaac Babel’s The Red Calvary, and an artist with a clear unabashed honesty and the courage to go where few would ever admit to going, let alone describe, you get that first story in Jesus’ Son, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

Denis Johnson, who, from all accounts, enjoyed people but shunned them like he did the booze and drugs that nearly killed him, lived in the woods in upstate Idaho with his wife. According to Deborah Treisman, The New Yorker fiction editor, Johnson had a shed by a lake on his property where he would sometimes work. Treisman writes, the lake “provided a metaphor for how he thought about his sentences, which he polished, sometimes for years, until he felt he had got them right. ‘There’s a surface tension to the words,’ he told me. ‘It is an illusion, and you can poke at it once, and then after that you’re just poking the ripples.’” Lawrence Wright said Johnson described writing a novel to him this way: “You get in your teacup and take your oar and strike off for Australia,” he said, “and if you wind up in Japan, you’re ecstatic.” Wright uncovered three writing rules Johnson told students:

-Write naked. That means to write what you would never say.
-Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it.
-Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to  call back every detail.

And once written, how did Johnson take the reviews? “A bad review is like one of those worms in the Amazon that swims up your penis. If you read it, you can’t get it out, somehow.”

A lot of people loved the writing of Denis Johnson. And a lot of writers who marveled at his words will no doubt be reading them again in the coming days. Johnson was 67 years old when he died earlier this week from cancer.

A Poem for Easter Morning, 2017

Image result for james wright horses

Easter is as old as dirt, yet the year, 2017, sounds like something out of science fiction, if you were born midway through the 20th century as I was. And in this age of instant information, I woke to scan the world for its morning news: clashes in Berkley, a failed rocket launch in North Korea, a child crushed to death in a rotating restaurant atop a skyscraper in Atlanta. Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with me.

Here’s a poem by James Wright.

A Blessing

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.


The Spark: Insights into Creativity

David Crosby has never been known as a prolific songwriter, especially compared to his band mates (in The Byrds and CSNY). And what songs he has written have, as with many works of art, come from turmoil. It seems he believed in the old adage: an artist must suffer to create. But now Crosby is 75 years old. Time is running out, and he’s hit the most creative years of his life. In his song, “By the Light of Common Day” (working title “The Muse”), he gives insight earned by long experience into the creative process: that those hard times he had–the early loss of his girlfriend, the drug years, prison–weren’t necessary. He didn’t need “to make it rough,” as he says in the song. The muse doesn’t need that; it just needs us to listen.

By the Light of Common Day (Lyrics by David Crosby, music by Becca Stevens)

By the light of common day
Things look different
Than they did in the starlit dark

The dark was warm and clouded
It was easy to deceive yourself
And those around you in the work

To say the craziness and pain
The spreading of the stain is
Exactly where you gain the spark to make it
As if being happy isn’t quite enough
Somehow I needed to make it rough
Rough enough to break it

To make those long connections
And run in wrong directions
Till I break it loose

I was wrong of course I see now
The spark is there all the time now
If you know how to listen to your calling
The muse is quietly knocking on your door now

To say the craziness and pain
The spreading of the stain is
Exactly where you gain the spark to make it
As if being happy isn’t quite enough

Somehow I needed to make it rough
Rough enough to break it
Rough enough to break it

You have to go faithfully each day
And open up your head some way

And what will come in answer
Some strong and gentle dancer
Will carry a song through your door
Some great lifting force of light
Will come to balance fearful night
And raise its voice and then raise yours
Raise its voice and then raise yours




Oh the places they’ll go….