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?


Shirley Showalter


  1. Terry Helwig on March 19, 2012 at 3:24 pm

    I think every protagonist, fictional or real, can become a portal to universal truth. Plumbing the depths of human longing is not exclusive to fiction or memoir. Writers who lean more toward fiction or memoir are exercising a preference for a particular portal–nothing more. As for writing about what you do or don’t know, I am curious how many memoir writers would say they write only what they know. Maybe memoir writers are writing about a time when they “didn’t know.” The ending of my memoir, Moonlight on Linoleum, came as a surprise to me even though I had lived the experience. It wasn’t until I put my experience into a broader context, that I came to a new understanding of myself. In a way, I wrote my memoir to learn more about my mother and my life–things I didn’t know when I began.

    • shirleyhs on March 19, 2012 at 3:57 pm

      Thank you so much for this comment, Terry. I hope readers will want to read your memoir based on this testimony. Yes, I already know what you mean about discovery, and I haven’t yet finished my first draft. I love to read other memoir writers who are making discoveries about their own lives. In some senses, every life is “magical,” but it may take a lot of probing under the “realism” to find it.

      Readers, here’s Lanie Tankard’s review of Moonlight on Linoleum:

  2. Richard Gilbert on March 19, 2012 at 8:23 pm

    I love this post, and it was all news to me. I agree with Terry’s reply, too.

    It seems to me that the type of work one does becomes a habit and feeds on itself. I think most if not all fiction writers take pieces of themselves, their virtues and flaws, dark side, whatever, and breathe that into characters. After doing that a while, the notion that the writer herself is an interesting character can seem idiotic. They are using their lives in a different way.

    I admire those who do both, but most don’t, or do one or the other.

    I used to be consumed by fiction, but writing a memoir has consumed with nonfiction–so many issues, subtleties, structures! Of course, great novelists seem to be able to knock out a great memoir and move on–back to novels. Updike’s Self-Consciousness and Roth’s Patrimony are both amazing. Maybe fiction is a great prep for memoir, but memoir may not be a bad prep for novels. Both are imaginative works. As I say, the habits of each art seem just so different.

    • shirleyhs on March 20, 2012 at 6:11 am

      Thanks, Richard. You offer an interesting insight into habits of the mind of the writer. A lot of writers do some kind of memoir. Edith Wharton (A Backward Glance), Ellen Glasgow (The Woman Within), and Willa Cather (Not Under Forty) –my dissertation writers — all did some kind of reflective memoirs. Cather was least revealing (although her fiction is highly autobiographical).

      Of Glasgow’s memoir, one of her male friends quipped, “It is the finest work of fiction she has yet produced.”

      I find, as I try my hand at memoir, that I do think about fiction also. But I think that’s just a passing curiosity. I hope so, at least. 🙂

  3. Brenda Bartella Peterson on March 20, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    I think it is impossible to write only “what you know” for as the two other comments indicate, one can’t help but learn through the act of writing. I had no idea my memoir had so much to teach me–much of which I would never have learned about my family and my life had I not undertaken my memoir project.

    Great post, Shirley.

  4. shirleyhs on March 20, 2012 at 3:11 pm

    Thanks, Brenda. I find it interesting (and encouraging) that you agree with Richard and Terry about the inevitability of writing what you don’t yet know in memoir.

    I’ve learned a lot I didn’t know a year ago. And I’m far behind you in the process. So let’s keep on learning.

  5. Laurie Gray on March 20, 2012 at 10:55 pm

    Memoir writing in many ways feels like a journey to know oneself. In writing fiction, my goal is to make my characters both unique and universal. Finding the stories about myself that are at once unique and universal may bring the most understanding to me and the most enjoyment to my readers.

    • shirleyhs on March 21, 2012 at 11:09 am

      Love this thought, Laurie. I think the best memoirs and the best novels have this kind of character in common. When we ask the question, “what is unique
      ?” about our own lives, we risk sounding smug. When we ask “what is universal?,” we risk getting lost in the blur of foggy writing. When we discover, through persistent work, what is both, we hit paydirt. That’s when we are really learning.

  6. Betsy Cross on March 21, 2012 at 11:10 am

    Hey Shirley!
    I pull stories together of ancestors I never knew from documents like birth, and marriage certificates, and census reports. One thing I know for sure: I’m really telling two stories. Mine and theirs! Thanks so much. Love this!

    • shirleyhs on March 22, 2012 at 7:21 pm

      Betsy, so true. You might even be telling more. Yours now (as the family historian) and yours long ago when you first knew the people your writing about.

      Thanks so much for your encouragement and kind words. I appreciate that you “liked” my fb page. And yours, for interested readers to check out, is called weforgotyounot.

  7. Linda Austin on March 21, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    We’d all jump at Toni’s memoir, but she’d rather spend her valuable time writing about something she doesn’t know. Less boring – to her! Maybe there’ll come a time when she feels like being introspective about her life. Memoir is not about fame and big accomplishments, rather the emotional journey, hence it’s all in how you write it.

    • shirleyhs on March 22, 2012 at 7:28 pm

      Great distinction, Linda. Although the popularity, and big publishing advances, of celebrity memoir, still connects the word “memoir” to its early days when generals and presidents wrote their “memoirs” at the ends of their careers.

      Morrison is 81 and in a wheelchair, according to one of the accounts I read. If she’s not interested now, she may never be.

      I like the way you see the issue from her point of view!

  8. Tina Fariss Barbour on March 21, 2012 at 10:59 pm

    Wonderful post. I love what you said in one of your comments about finding both the unique and the universal. That’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t know if you have read Marion Roach Smith’s “The Memoir Project,” but it was very helpful to me. She writes about using the specific to illustrate the universal themes.

    I agree that we learn as we write, even if it’s memoir. As I am working on my own memoir (first draft), I have made discoveries, and have come to understand things in a different light. It’s exciting!

    My favorite writer is Joan Didion. I wrote my master’s thesis on her fiction, but in reality, I love her nonfiction more. I was just too afraid at the time to “commit” to nonfiction. Didion said that she writes to discover what she thinks about something (not an exact quote here).

    She is a writer who has written fiction, essays, book-length nonfiction,journalism, memoir. I love them all. But I always go back to her essays, nonfiction and memoir.

    • shirleyhs on March 22, 2012 at 7:35 pm

      I’m a Marion Roach Smith fan also. I did a post about her NPR story when her book first came out: The two video links got caught in the switch to my new website, but I think you can cut and paste them. I hope to see her in person when she gives a reading in NYC later this spring.

      And yes, Didion is amazing! Good example of both novelist and memoirist.

    • Marion Roach Smith on March 25, 2012 at 7:55 am

      What a great discussion. Imagine my delight to find a mention of me and my irreverent little book here on the page.
      Thank you, Tina and Shirley. I am honored to be here.

    • shirleyhs on March 25, 2012 at 9:09 am

      Thanks Marion for showing up here. Your fans appreciate your thoughtfulness.

  9. ShirleyK on March 22, 2012 at 10:07 am

    Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking is simply exquisite.

    That lucky biographer of Morrison’s you mentioned, Shirley? Wouldn’t her book be too removed, reportorial? Maybe she’d do better with a memoir about knocking at the gates, trying to fill her own (un)lucky shoes.

    • shirleyhs on March 22, 2012 at 7:39 pm

      You always ask interesting questions, ShirleyK. Biographies are more removed than memoirs, certainly, almost by definition. But a good one can make the subject come alive. I think of what RWB Lewis did with his bio of Edith Wharton. It read like a mystery novel. He was lucky enough to make a great find in the letters Wharton didn’t burn.Probably contemporary writers will be more careful. Or maybe Wharton wanted her steamy affair to come to light some day. We’ll never know.

  10. ShirleyK on March 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Now I have to read it.

    • shirleyhs on March 23, 2012 at 1:22 pm


  11. shirleyhs on March 23, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Great news! Next October Toni Morrison, and a host of other African-American super star artists will be coming to my area via the auspices of my friend Joanne Gabbin and her amazing Furious Flower Poetry Center. Here’s the story:Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, VA)

    March 21, 2012

    Section: News-Local

    Our `Sheer Good Fortune’


    HARRISONBURG – Joanne Gabbin has connections.

    The executive director of James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center, Gabbin has organized dozens of events at the university, often with some of the biggest names in the literary community.

    So it came as no surprise that when past JMU speaker, Virginia Tech professor and acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni wanted to organize a tribute to author Toni Morrison, she called Gabbin. The two friends are now in the process of organizing “Sheer Good Fortune: Celebrating Toni Morrison,” which Gabbin expects will bring together some of the biggest names in literature this October. “Nikki decided an event of this level needs to have Maya Angelou involved so Maya Angelou, herself a national treasure, will just bring that extra weight to the significance of this event,” said Gabbin, who organized a similar tribute to poet Lucille Clifton with Giovanni in 2010. Due to space constraints at JMU, the event will take place at Virginia Tech’s Burruss Auditorium at 7 p.m. on Oct. 16. According to Gabbin, organizers are expecting more than 3,000 people. Ticketing information is not yet available. During the event, Morrison and Angelou will receive lifetime achievement awards from Furious Flower, which began in 1999. The center’s mission is to advance African-American poetry by hosting events and workshops for new and experienced poets. “Even though [Morrison] will not be physically on [the JMU] campus, our university will be directly involved with making this whole thing happen,” Gabbin said. Fundraiser JMU will charter several buses to the event to see the woman Gabbin calls “the most distinguished American writer of our time.” Morrison, who was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 and the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, is known for novels that highlight black culture. Her acclaimed works include “The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved.” Morrison, 81, began her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” following the birth of her son in 1961 while she was teaching English at Howard University. The novel was published in 1970 and was followed up in 1973 with “Sula,” which was nominated for an American Book Award. After the release of “Song of Solomon” in 1977, Morrison was known as a popular up-and-coming writer. She is also the author of children’s books, plays, song lyrics and a libretto. “She clearly has achieved at a very, very high level,” Gabbin said. “We want to educate those who may know of Toni Morrison by her name, but cannot possibly understand what a significant contribution she’s made to American literature.” Among those invited to attend are poets Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and Rita Dove, musician Wynton Marsalis, opera singer Jessye Norman and novelist Paule Marshall. “This is really just an opportunity for the literary arts community to get together to celebrate Toni Morrison and to say that we have the sheer good fortune to do this while she can be a part of it,” Gabbin said. A fundraiser for the event called the Furiously Fun Party will be held April 28 at House of Oak and Sofas. The furniture store will be transformed into a nightclub, complete with music by Ebony Blue Band, dancing, drinks, snacks and poetry. Tickets are $30 on the Furious Flower website or $35 at the door. Contact Emily Sharrer at 574-6286 or Want To Help? Donations for the event can be mailed to James Madison University, Furious Flower Poetry Center, 1151 DDM Driver Dr. MSC 3802, Harrisonburg, VA 22807. Details will be posted as they become available to
    Copyright (c) 2012, Byrd Newspapers, All Rights Reserved.

  12. […] is one of the most famous writers of fiction and nonfiction living today. Unlike Toni Morrison, who has decided not to write a memoir, Franzen has dipped into memoir more than once, often by writing essays in The New Yorker and then […]

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