A couple weeks ago the WordPress Daily Post Writing Challenge was about writing style, either discussing a favorite author’s writing style or even imitating that smile. I wanted to do it, but time slipped away and I didn’t do it. Though the challenge time has passed, I still want to write about Toni Morrison’s writing style, which I love.
Toni Morrison’s stories are fascinating. I love how she weaves together characters, settings, traumas, and journeys in such compelling language. The dreary settings can be amazing. A house is bathed in red light. A cold room is stuffed with love. Morrison shows how what can often be overlooked or devalued holds much significance. She honors folktales and black folks, humble beginnings and uncertain yet faintly hopeful futures.
I first read a Toni Morrison novel in college. I had heard her name and the title Beloved for many years, but I wasn’t interested in reading any works until I was introduced to Sula my first semester of college. I was intrigued, and in the summer I read The Bluest Eye and Beloved on my own. Then in junior year in England I studied Beloved for a class on literature and memory. I was bowled over again. Every time I read it I learn something new. When I heard there would be a seminar on Toni Morrison’s works offered in Kenyon’s English department my last semester there, I jumped on the chance. In that class I was able to look over the scope of her work and delve into the themes.
I find her writing to be so precise. Her words and language are deftly chosen. Sometimes she hints at something that upon second reading you realize evokes something much deeper. Other times she whaps you over the head with something, it’s done in such an unexpected way. I thought I had her novel Song of Solomon all figured out. “Oh, this is how it will play out. I won’t get swept up in it.” Then at the turn of the book I find myself uprooted and invested. There’s a conversation between the main character and one of his sisters that had me reading the words over and over. From that point on I was hooked and found the novel to be a fascinating coming of age story and reconnection with stories of old.
One of my favorite passages by her is from Sula, the first book of hers that I read. Children play by water. They and the reader are caught up in the moment when something happens in the most beautiful language. Only after you continue reading do you realize the weight of what happens, just like being caught up in childish delight and then learning the consequences of actions.
When I learned that Toni Morrison studied and wrote her master’s thesis on William Faulker, things clicked even more. First semester of college I read Abasalom, Abasalom! by Faulker and then I read it again for my senior English major comprehensive exam. It’s a difficult read, but once you get into it, you realize how complexly constructed the work is. The main story is told over and over again, passed from person to person, and more and more details are revealed as you go along. You get the whole story summed up on the first page but then you go deeper to find out why, to find out the details. While I complained about Faulker’s verbose language, stretching sentences out a paragraph long and paragraphs for pages, I recognized a master storyteller unfolding his work.
That’s what I see with Morrison. In The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Paradise, you get the story told to you and you keep reading to find out why. But it’s so much deeper than that because as you keep reading, there’s more at stake than just telling the facts of a story. You get into the mind of all the characters, whether they are reprehensible or pitiable. You explore themes of home, belonging, pain, trauma, and love. Like reading Faulker, when I realized what Morrison was up to, I was entranced. But it’s not that Morrison is throwing tricks from her sleeve, that she’s trying to trick readers. She just knows how to tell a story, how to catch your attention and make you feel for characters. She introduces you to life with its beauty and harshness, but I feel I can there is usually enough room that I can enjoy the depth of the themes, the beauty of the detailed language, and the plot of the story.
Sometimes the bleakness of her stories becomes overwhelming. I read her newest story, the novella Home, at the beginning of the summer. I felt it didn’t have room to breathe. In her other novels readers have the ability to get in touch with the world, step inside, get a feel for it. It’s not that you’re always comfortable. You’re swept into the world and the harshness of it quickly. Beloved, you’re introduced to a mysterious house right off the bat. Paradise begins with someone being shot. Intense trauma happens in all her novels. But with her novella I felt all the trauma was included but they could only be touched on superficially. By the time I connected with a character, the novel was quickly ending. But I will have to go back and reread Home, study it more, because home is a main theme of Toni Morrison’s works that a novella named Home cannot be taken lightly.
I’m normally not one to read stories with a lot of sex and despair. I love happy endings and uplifting messages. But I also I love the poetry of words and the complexities of finding a different view and a different story than what you expect. That’s why I keep going back to Toni Morrison’s novels. A story well told is a story well told, and Morrison is a master of language and storytelling. She’s poetic and to the point. Each time I revisit a story I find that there’s more to uncover, more to find. I feel there is so much to learn from her.