Last week I heard Toni Morrison read and discuss her work at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Hosted by the school's MFA Program, the Writers at Newark Reading Series invites the community and local high school students to free author readings and talks.
I arrived early and worked from Starbucks while waiting for the line to begin, overhearing snippets of students’ conversations while plucking straightforward prose from my mind for a freelance assignment. The task was practical with no need for the poetic, and the words were lining up in formation across my screen when I overheard one student pleading with another.
“Toni Morrison,” she said to the blank face of her friend, “You know, the writer?”
“She won a Nobel Prize? Wrote a lot of books? You really should go.”
He really should have.
I closed my laptop on my thirsty words, and two hours later I was craning my neck with 750 students, faculty, alumni, high school students and members of the community waiting for Morrison to appear.
They held copies of her books for autographs, wrapping fingers and arms around the glossy covers: Sula. Beloved. The Bluest Eye. A Mercy. Song of Solomon. Jazz. Love. Soft, strong words. Alive words. Woman words.
She hadn’t said a word yet and I could feel the titles shifting my day just a little, away from government words, technology words, and itchy, marketing and website optimization words.
Behind me, high school students and a young girl, maybe in middle school.
”Look, the mayor!” one said, pointing to the man in the front row who stood, sat down, stood up again every few seconds to deliver a handshake, smile or hug.
“Cory Booker. Right there.”
More neck straining, staring and pointing over excited people talking all at once.
“Oooh!” she said, spotting him. “He’s HOT!”
Eventually, I would hear words I had been willing to stand in line for.
The girls stopped giggling when Mayor Booker spoke to introduce her. He described hours in graduate school overseas alone with Morrison's prose. She was the first to point to the darker places in himself and all of us, he said. Her words resonated because they “break up the soil of the human soul,” and in him they sparked a growing desire to “address the unfinished business of the human experience.”
He went on, but I stayed with the sentence, half my heart bowed low with the trace of three men who had been living the week before. They had all been killed in an uptick in violence in Newark over the Easter weekend.
But the other half-heart lifted, and at the same sentence--to where other young people of Newark will be if this Morrison-inspired mayor, and all of us, address the unfinished business in places that tag paths of violence on children before they are old enough to know they don’t have to take them.
Morrison came out to accept the mayor's introduction and settled in to read. But she did not pick up any of the titles the audience already owned. Instead, she explained, she would read from an unfinished manuscript she was still editing.
To reproduce it here would feel too much like re-gifting a present meant only for the recipients. Readers should have to wait for it.
It is enough to say she silenced all 750 of us. She cut through the words of the day that had been ringing in my ears, cut straight through the schizophrenic stream of Twitterfeed I had joined the week before, gaining a habit that was already creating a nervous tic in my thumb.
All that was left was breathing, a few head nods and every so often a satisfied “hmm” that sounded like eating cheesecake, slowly.
After cadence that had quieted us all, later Morrison was asked for advice she could give to young writers who struggle to balance lyricism and plot.
To be clear, she was asked about writing fiction. But the answer isn't only for the novelist. It is for Twitterers and journalists, lawyers and politicians, assistants and project managers, parents and the children who search them for clues whether parents have them or not.
It is how to balance and heed the fast words—the outside lives of action and work in cities, business, government, offices—with the words that take action in hearts, words that point to the darkness and push toward lightness, words we can inhale.
How do we balance lyricism and plot in the words and lives we scan, often analyze, but rarely breathe, in a day?
Unfortunately, she admitted no pat answer. She called her response prosaic. But it was still right.
“Writing is revision. If you don’t want to revise, you don’t want to write,” she said. “…I can edit. Follow this trail, not that one. But the leap is so personal. It has to be yours. You don’t teach that. You recognize it.”
Of course, we need the outside words that get things done. Best practices. Innovative solutions to challenges in business and education. Job creation and revenue building, allocation of resources and anti-poverty measures. Public safety and police presence, health care and accountability and outcomes.
But eat too many of these words and they become bitter.
The more people who leave rooms feeling as Toni Morrison’s audience did last week, the less space there will be in us for the violence that requires the fixing words.
The gifts the Rutgers audience received from Ms. Morrison and Mayor Booker are what Newark—what all of us—will be unable to revise drafted lives without. Not just words that topple an argument, but those that push our hearts in the right direction, dig up the soil of the soul, and make us breathe.