The Toni Morrison Principle

The Toni Morrison PrinciplePhoto by Edrece Stansberry on Unsplash

Working parents who wish to write may struggle to find a healthy balance of work, family, and art. So much to do, so little time. If something has to give, it often falls on our creative pursuits. After all, making a living and caring for a family are critical to survival.

But parenthood and writing are not mutually exclusive.

Acclaimed author Toni Morrison’s ironcladdetermination to be a good mother, sole wage-earner, and published writer is inspiring. Her marriage dissolved in 1964 while she was pregnant with her second child. In a brave move, she accepted a job as a textbook editor and moved to New York state, where she worked full-time and managed to write on the fringes of her day. Little by little, her pages turned into a novel.

In a 2003 interview with the New Yorker, she said, “I stole time to write. Writing was my other job — I always kept it over there, away from my ‘real’ work as an editor or teacher.” And after steadily chipping away for years, she released her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970.

After limited notice from the literary world, a November 1970 review from the New York Times launched the novel and Morrison into the literary world. Tackling issues of racial beauty standards, poverty, and child abuse, the novel proved a foundation for a formidable literary career.

Morrison’s proclivity for writing in the margins of the day continued throughout her life, as she discussed with Hilton Als in an interview for Studio 360. She told Als, “I get up before the light. I’m really smart in the morning.”

Clearly, this practice was effective, as she penned eleven novels, a bounty of nonfiction, two plays, seven children’s books with her son Slade, poetry, short fiction, and even an opera. Despite life’s demands, she wrote. A prolific voice for the Black experience, Morrison showcased the power of stealing time to write.

Image for postPhoto by Daniel Bosse on Unsplash

The discipline of utilizing margins

Writers can glean wisdom from Morrison’s hard-won successes as an author despite being a working single mother. She had a simple approach — intentionality. It’s a simple idea, one not easily mastered.

Cultivating intentionality is difficult. Tired parents stretched thin by life’s demands must scrape and scramble for time to create. Writing early in the morning, during naptime, after bathtime and bedtime — these margins may be all some people have while children are young.

We may jot notes in the car while waiting to pick the kids up from soccer. Dictating an idea to Siri while on the toilet, choosing writing time over reruns of The Office when we’re exhausted — whatever it takes. Meaty, uninterrupted blocks of time to create just aren’t in the cards sometimes, and that’s okay.

If Toni Morrison can work full time in a new city as a single mother and write The Bluest Eye, that should give writing parents hope.

The long-range plan

Morrison’s first novel took five years to finish. The pockets of filched time added up, and Pecola Breedlove came to life. Stone by stone we build a castle, and page by page we write a novel. Slow and steady wins the race.

Making peace with a long-range goal is one way to keep the momentum going. Promising ourselves to write 200 words a day, or finish a line of dialogue, or edit a paragraph at a time — all steps on a journey. Woven together, they span into pages, chapters, and eventually, a finished work.

Being okay with the long haul is one way we can steel ourselves to commit and get the thing done. Embracing the process strengthens us. Knowing it won’t be quick, easy, or painless, we can dig in and do the work that needs doing.

Sweet celebration and victory

At some point, with enough stolen time and effort, something new is born. A thing forged from seasons of life and sacrifice — the fruit of extended labor. Suddenly, a novel or chapbook or whatever beautiful thing you’ve been crafting in the margins of your day will come to life.

And then we’ll celebrate. Send it to print, call our parents and sisters and friends. Shout it loudly for all to hear. We did it. And we’ll hug our children, who are woven into the fabric of the thing we’ve created. They stand as inspiration, frustration, and jubilation all tangled together at the end of the journey.

Dress up for a fancy brunch or pop a bottle of champagne in your pajamas. Go out for pizza. Whatever fits. Just be sure to celebrate what you’ve done, you amazing parent and writer.

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