by Susan Reese
The National Council of Teachers of English brought me face to face with Toni Morrison.
NCTE had partnered with the Norman Mailer Foundation and Larry Schiller, Norman Mailer’s friend, to set in place a national writing contest for teachers and students. I was involved in curating the community college submissions. The genre was creative non-fiction. Mailer had been a pioneer in this genre writing about the execution of Gary Gilmore in the Executioner’s Song. The project culminated with an event filled with literary “Who’s Who.” These celebrities came together to honor the powerful influence of language in the lives of all of us.
When I saw Toni Morrison sitting by herself at one of the round tables for eight, I approached her. “Good evening, we are so excited to have you here.” I greeted her.
She looked at me somewhat puzzled. She was swathed in shades of gray with many wraps. Her gray hair in long twists around her head seemed to have provided the inspiration for the entire outfit. She was the eye of a hurricane.
“Oh, I am early, I know, but my feet are killing me. I just had to come in and sit down. I am not much for grand entrances.” She stopped speaking, rubbed her left foot with her right hand, and then coming back to the reality of the evening asked, “Did you know Norman well?”
Caught off guard, I stuttered, “Well, I have been to his house in Cape Cod, but…no, not well. I could not bring myself to tell her that I knew Norman about as well as I knew Stanley Kunitz; I had waved to both at their residences when I was in Provincetown studying poetry at The Fine Arts Center.
“He and I did not see eye to eye on many things, but there was something intriguing about the rascal. There was a soft spot in his heart, beyond all of the bravado. But, what about you? What are you working on? Don’t answer that. I hate when people ask me that question and want a one-word answer.”
“Well, actually, I am working on you,” I said in a word. “I just bought A Mercy on Amazon.”
“Oh, yes, I think that the book purveyors could ruin the publishing business. One ambitious scheme is offering all of the best sellers for only ten dollars. This may help them, but it will be disastrous for the writers. We’ll be getting $.67 a copy.”
I opened my purse to show her the book. “I was reading A Mercy on the train here and thinking of my friend Peggy. She is in the hospital with a very serious illness.”
“Is she a fighter? We need fighters in this world.”
I nodded in the affirmative. “I’ll be giving her this book when I next see her,” I said.
“May I sign that for her? I hope that it will be a message to her and to you of the good in the world.” With that, she took the book, produced her own pen and wrote.
“I am sure that she will be thrilled,” I said. “You are an inspiration.”
“What’s the world for you if you can’t make it up the way you want it? Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, re-visitation, a little ambiguity.” Later, I found this sentiment expressed in an interview in a different context, but in this time and space, her words were for me and for Peggy.
You must be wondering about my tenacious embrace of the bliss of ignorance in not initially putting a name to multiple myeloma, Peggy Morgan’s serious illness. You must also be wondering about Peggy. What message did Toni Morrison send her? Did this message provide solace? Although it could have, more likely it was the team of doctors and the determination of Peggy herself that made her continue on her journey opening doors and leaving the endings open for interpretation, re-visitation, and a little ambiguity in this story of imagined realism.
However, the story would not be complete without a word from Peggy more than ten years after the event.
“Toni wrote ‘Blessings’ in my book—so much in one word. Now I know that she was actually encouraging us all to recognize, deal with, survive, triumph over evil.”
I cannot help thinking that Toni Morrison was also sending a message to NJCTE, asking members to consider her approach to difficulty and conflict: Everything I’ve ever done, in the writing world, has been to expand articulation, rather than to close it, to open doors, sometimes, not even closing the book – leaving the endings open for reinterpretation, re-visitation, a little ambiguity.
Thus, it seems strangely fitting that I should end my remembrance of Toni Morrison with the words of Norman Mailer in his observations about the key traits of a writer:
“The writer can grow as a person or he can shrink. … His curiosity, his reaction to life must not diminish. The fatal thing is to shrink, to be interested in less, sympathetic to less, desiccating to the point where life itself loses its flavor, and one’s passion for human understanding changes to weariness and distaste.”