Toni Morrison Never Wanted to be a Writer
Toni Morrison knew better than to become a writer. She loved literature, loved reading, editing and teaching books, but she did not want to write them herself.
Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, just two generations removed from being a sharecropper. But her parents were hard workers and her mother flooded Morrison with stories at a young age. “As well as songs, [Morrison’s mother] shared ghost stories – spine-tinglers learnt from older relatives in Alabama – with her bookish daughter, who was already reading Austen and Tolstoy,” according to a profile of Morrison in The Guardian.
Her passion for literature only grew over time. She went to Howard University and studied English and the classics, she taught English at Texas Southern University and later at Howard, and eventually she landed a job as an editor at Random House. Morrison could just as easily have passed happily into obscurity, never putting pen to paper.
“I never wanted to be a writer, but I was always an avid reader of fiction,” she said in an interview from Conversations with Toni Morrison. So what went wrong? Her marriage, for starters.She had married an architect and had two children with him, but their marriage eventually dissolved. Afterward, she moved around with her children a bit before taking the job at Random House. While working there, she resurrected a story she’d written years earlier and began to write much more seriously. “I was divorced and in a state of unhappiness,” she later recalled. Writing helped her deal with the chaos and loneliness of her life at that point, and it also served as “a way of communicating.”
The story she was working on was one she’d quickly produced in a writer’s group while teaching at Howard University. From her interview in Conversations:
“There were about 10 of us who got together once a month, and the only rule was that you couldn’t come unless you brought something to read… I brought all that old junk I’d written in high school. Then one day I didn’t have anything to bring, so I wrote a little story about a black girl who wanted blue eyes. It was written hurriedly and probably not very well, but I read it and some liked it… Still, I thought it was finished; I’d written it, had an audience, so I put it aside.”
She worked on the story in secret while at Random House. In an interview with the Paris Review, she said she probably would have been fired if her coworkers had found out she was writing a book, such was the culture of being an editor there. When she finished the book, The Bluest Eye, it was published by Holt rather than Random House. The New York Times Book Review initially panned the book, but it soon received some praise from critics.
Still, even after that first book, she wasn’t convinced she was a writer. In her interview with the Paris Review, she claimed it wasn’t until she started working on Song of Solomon that she began to view herself as a writer first and foremost. Morrison continued to work as an editor part-time, spending nearly two decades at Random House, and continues to teach, now at Princeton, making her one of the more well-rounded writers in the business.