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Lessons in Revision from Toni Morrison

Shanda McManus gains insight into her memoir revisions after visiting an exhibit on Toni Morrison's creative process.

By Shanda McManus

March 30, 2023

I’ve been a fan of Toni Morrison’s work ever since I read The Bluest Eye as a teenager. Finally, I thought when I read it, a novel featuring a black girl like myself. That book inspired me to want to be a writer, to tell my own story. So, of course, I was excited when I heard about “Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory,” an exhibition at Princeton University. The exhibition features papers from the writer’s personal collection and gives a behind-the-curtain look at the writer and her creative and revision process. I immediately made a plan to visit. Here’s what I learned:

Morrison’s Creative Process

Morrison wrote portions of Song of Solomon in a day planner; most of the notes are from 1974 and 1975. In addition to the diary entries, there are scraps of paper, Post-It notes, outlines, and hand-drawn maps of settings. This paper mishmash is the only surviving record of a draft of the famous novel.

This section of the exhibit showcases Morrison’s creative process and talks about her method being recursive, iterative, and multivalent. I read this and was unsure of the exact meaning of these three words. I looked them up when I got home.

  • Recursive: relating to or involving the repeated application of a rule, definition, or procedure to successive results.
  • Iterative: involving repetition such as a) expressing repetition of a verbal action and b) utilizing the repetition of a sequence of operations…
  • Multivalent: having many values, meanings, or appeals.

These three terms are borrowed from math and science. They imply repetition and the possibility of more than one answer. As I examined her papers, I saw how Morrison employed these ideas in her revisions and also in the exploration of new material.

Traveling Backward to Move Forward

The exhibit inspired me as a memoir writer currently in deep revision in the Book Revision Lab. I often find myself returning to the same scenes and themes in my work. Again and again, particular moments and images return to me. And I ask: Why this? Again? I’m left frustrated by the constant return to the same material.

However, seeing how Morrison returned again and again to the same moments and memories, mining them for more profound work, has given me confidence. I am moving forward even if I am traveling backward again and again.

Toni Morrison: Sites of Memory
February 22 through June 4, 2023
Firestone Library, Princeton, NJ

Shanda McManus has been featured in Intima Journal of Narrative Medicine, Midnight & Indigo, and other publications.