Toni Morrison on Failure…and Writing Sex Scenes


The early frontrunner for literary essay of the year is…an interview about failure Toni Morrison gave to the National Endowment for the Arts. It covers everything you could want, from waking up in the morning to writing sex scenes.

It’s like writing sex scenes. What you do in such a scene is open it up so that the metaphorical language can stimulate, so that it’s not clinical, it’s not surgical. Then the reader can fill it out or take it in or remember it. But the rest [of getting it right] is just keep doing it. You just do it again and again.

The interview is insightful and wise in that unsparing yet warm manner specific to Morrison. But it’s not just a “fail better” pick-me-up for young writers — there is also legitimate, typically brilliant literary criticism in the interview. For example, Morrison scolds young writers for self-obsession without dogmatically rejecting autobiographical forms. “Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography,” she writes about her workshop students, “at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.” It’s a banquet, in other words, of intuition and experience, from one of the best writers we’ve ever had.