Toni Morrison

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What does Toni Morrison's quote about writing suggest?

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The quote "If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic" from the essay "The Site of Memory" by Toni Morrison suggests that literature should be more than the facts as presented in biographies and autobiographies. The imaginative act of fiction supplies truth that is missing from a bare presentation of facts.

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The quote "If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic" appears in an essay called "The Site of Memory" by Toni Morrison. In it, she writes of the differences and similarities between memoir and fiction. She first discusses this subject in relation to slave narratives, which are autobiographies of enslaved Black people. As Morrison relates, these narratives were written to present a historical account, and to persuade others that Black people "are human beings worthy of God's grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery." We see here the two purposes of writing as embodied in the above quote.

Morrison points out that these narratives were immensely popular in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but that their authors made them palatable to white readers by downplaying the more sordid aspects of slavery. She also adds, "But most importantly—at least for me—there was no mention of their interior life." Morrison wants to "rip that veil drawn over proceedings too terrible to relate." In other words, she wants to uncover the details that were previously kept out of narratives for reasons of propriety. To do this, she relies on her memories and the memories of others, which she considers "the subsoil of my work." However, memories alone are insufficient; she adds that "only the act of the imagination can help me."

Then we come to the quote in question. "Thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning" refer not only to the technical and organizational tools of writers, but also to the laying out of facts as presented in literary forms such as autobiographies. "Awe and reverence and mystery and magic" refer to the interior life that is absent in the autobiographical narratives that she has been discussing. In Morrison's opinion, fiction fills in this gap of missing material. She writes,

It's a kind of literary archaeology: On the basis of some information and a little bit of guesswork you journey to a site to see what remains were left behind and to reconstruct the world that these remains imply. What makes it fiction is the nature of the imaginative act: my reliance on the image—on the remains—in addition to recollection, to yield up a kind of a truth.

Morrison goes on to explain that fiction, unlike fact, does not need to be "publicly verifiable," whereas biography does need to be confirmed. She emphasizes that "the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth." In her estimation, thinking, discovery, selection, order, and meaning supply the facts, but awe, reverence, mystery, and magic supply the truth.

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