You Too Can Write Like Toni Morrison!

Peter Wood

Toni Morrison has a distinction beyond her Nobel prize in literature: she is one of the most frequently assigned modern writers in college English courses. Well-regarded writers often shape the standards of literate expression in their time, especially if aspiring young men and women encounter their books during the impressionable years of college.

There was a time when nearly every man who went to college wanted to sound like Hemingway. Studiously plain English. Very short sentences. And lots of ands. And emotion held in reserve. The enchantments of other writers have been more fleeting. For a while, creative writing students wanted dearly to sound like Raymond Carver, whose hyper-minimalism left many of us aching for a good old adjective or two. For several seemingly interminable decades, students in the social sciences inexplicably strove to write English modeled on bad translations of incomprehensible French theorists. The style was perfected by Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble, who gained immortality of a sort for her 1999 first-place finish in the Bad Writing Contest held by the journal Philosophy and Literature. Her prize-winning sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Gone are the days when students yearned to command the stylistic muscle of Addison, the authority of Johnson, the fullness of Gibbon -- or the wry voice of Twain. But never mind. We have Morrison.

Of course, some of our readers were no doubt set in their ways before Morrison’s Beloved (1988) came along to open up new possibilities of English expression. You are asking yourself, “Is it too late for me? Is there any hope that I can catch that special cadence, that artful style that will, you know, make me sound all wise ‘n stuff?”

It is not too late. As a public service, we offer a primer on how to write the Morrison way. We will be using Morrison’s brand-new novel, A Mercy, as our primary text. To get started, let’s look at the opening sentences of the first paragraph:

Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark -- weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more -- but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth. I explain. You can think what I tell you a confession, if you like, but one full of curiosities familiar only in dreams and during those moments when a dog’s profile plays on the steam of a kettle. Or when a corn-husk doll sitting on a shelf is soon splaying in the corner of a room and the wicked of how it got there is plain. Stranger things happen all the time everywhere. You know. I know you know.

To write the Morrison way, you have to pay attention to details. A less artful writer, for example, would have said “despite what I’ve done” in that second sentence, “in spite of” implying some spitefulness to be overcome. So, as a first lesson, misuse common phrases. That will build trust with your readers who want their authors to meet them on the common ground of casual verbiage.

These opening sentences, as we soon learn, are the words or the thoughts of Florens, a slave somewhere around what is now New Jersey in 1690. She addresses a free Negro blacksmith with whom she is enamored. We might therefore expect some attempt to capture a dialect characteristic of the time and place. That’s, of course, what a lesser writer would do. Morrison instead gives us a voice that slides around from advanced English syntax to folksy illiteracy. Second lesson: Embrace inconsistency. This will force your readers to think. Florens refers somewhat oddly to her “telling” in that second sentence, while also promising to “lie quietly.” Can she do both? (“Telling” becomes Florens’ abiding concern in the novel, her word for bearing witness.)

Embracing inconsistency need not, however, require you to compose self-contradictory sentences. You can achieve the effect in simpler ways, as for example, just by leaving words out. Florens says, “I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.” Fully spelled out that would be “to bare my teeth,” but how much more force is achieved by truncation. “To rise up and bare teeth” becomes a single action, like “rise and shine!”

By using verbs as nouns (“my telling”) and mixing up other parts of speech, you can create a veil of mystery. Note how “wicked,” which is usually an adjective, gets mysteriously transformed into an ominous abstract noun in "the wicked of how it got there is plain.” A couple of paragraphs later we have “My head is light with confusion of two things, hunger for you and scare if I am lost.” Elsewhere, “Still it is the continue of all misery.”

One more short lesson, and then we will be ready for a little exercise. It is important to indicate the speaker’s self-consciousness by inserting numerous little declarations, e.g., “Don’t be afraid,” “I explain,” “You know. I know you know.”

Let’s see if we can put our new understanding of how to write the Morrison way to work. Here’s the lead paragraph from the Sunday New York Times front page story, headlined “World Leaders Vow Joint Push to Aid Economy”:

Facing the gravest economic crisis in decades, the leaders of 20 countries agreed Saturday to work together to revive their economies, but they put off thornier decisions about how to overhaul financial regulations until next year, providing a serious early challenge for the Obama administration.

Remember the rules: (1) Misuse common phrases, (2) Embrace inconsistency, (3) Omit words to create more forceful expression, (4) Mix up parts of speech, and (5) Chop in self-conscious micro-sentences.

Here’s the New York Times paragraph Morrison-ized:

Their facing of Saturday graves upon graves of crisis, the leaders of 20 countries agreed to work and revive their economies but put off the thornier of how to haul over financial regulations until, next year, when the Obama administration is challenged. We explain.

These simple rules can be applied to almost anything you might care to write. Until you are fluent in Morrisonian, I recommend that you practice by translating your regular writing into this more compelling style. Consider for example the ordinary office memo:

Just to remind you, I will be out of the office Tuesday to meet with our supplier, Acme Explosives. Please finish your work on the 2Q budget and let the account rep know that Mr. Coyote’s order will be shipped Thursday.


The reminding can’t wait the hurry of it. I explain. I know you know of Tuesday, I and Acme Explosives is soon together meet. You can please work, perhaps, the budget’s second quarter, and knowledge the account rep of Mr. Coyote’s Thursday shipment.

Once you have mastered these basics, you will be ready for some more advanced lessons. Morrison is our undisputed master of wandering verb tenses: “So when I set out to find you, she and Mistress give me Sir’s boots that fit a man not a girl.” Her character Florens seems addicted to progressive verbs: “What I am wanting to tell her," “I am never hearing how they once talk,” and “I am remembering what you tell me.” This may sound a bit like “black English,” but the character in whose mouth Morrison puts these verb forms doesn’t speak any known dialect. Rather, Morrison creates a linguistic mash-up for her, composed of sonorities from the King James Bible, daytime TV bromides, and a touch here and there of Uncle Remus.

Morrison knows how deftly to insert evocative foreign terms: “My mother, a minha mãe, is frowning…” (Minha mãe is Portuguese for “my mother,” and is also a category of voodoo spirit). Morrison is a free spirit when it comes to interpreting the past and is not bogged down by petty concern with historical accuracy. This applies to matters large and small. Whole characters seem to have dropped back in time from the twenty-first century. But it is the anachronistic little details that are Morrison’s signature. My favorite occurs late in the book: “Ice-coated starlings clung to branches drooping with snow.” This is the 1690s, two centuries before the eccentric bird lover Eugene Schiffelin introduced starlings to the U.S. by releasing sixty of them in Central Park.

Schiffelin had no idea how the birds would proliferate, crowd out native species, and form enormous squawking, twittering, whistling flocks that seem to fill up whole forests. Starlings seem to propagate as fast as clichés and to descend like clouds of effusive blurbs on overpraised books.

Morrison’s error in putting them back in the seventeenth century is, of course, charming. The Latin Americans have their magical realism. We have our answer in Morrison’s historical irrealism, a poetic patois highly suitable for de-imagining the past.

Image: "Toni Morrison" by Cliff // CC BY-SA

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