“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives,” Morrison said during her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1993.
A writer, editor, professor, and thinker extraordinaire, Morrison “did” language unlike anyone else. Best known for her 1988 novel Beloved, the story of an escaped slave who kills her newborn child, Morrison revolutionized literature by placing the stories of Black people at the forefront. She sought to demolish what she called the "lobby," or the comfortable, inviting threshold between a white reader and Black text. She leaves behind 11 novels and a trove of wisdom for readers, writers, and people moving through the world.
Here are some of Morrison's best quotes — lanterns that briefly illuminate the mystery we live in.
“Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all.”
“Which was what love was: unmotivated respect.”
"Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind. It is a learned application without reason or motive except that it is God. You do not deserve love regardless of the suffering you have endured. You do not deserve love because somebody did you wrong. You do not deserve love just because you want it. You can only earn — by practice and careful contemplations — the right to express it and you have to learn how to accept it. Which is to say you have to earn God. You have to practice God. You have to think God-carefully. And if you are a good and diligent student you may secure the right to show love. Love is not a gift. It is a diploma."
“Don't ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn't fall in love, I rose in it.”
“Love is never any better than the lover. ”
On the idea of "strong women characters:"
"I think that our expectations of women are very low. If women just stand up straight for thirty days, everybody goes, Oh! How brave!"
On weapons of the weak:
"Nagging. Poison. Gossip. Sneaking around instead of confrontation."
“At some point in life the world's beauty becomes enough. You don't need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don't need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens — that letting go — you let go because you can.”
“Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”
“She’s a friend of my mind. She gathers me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them right back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
On quarter-life crises:
“It was a silly age, twenty-five; too old for teenaged dreaming, too young for settling down. Every corner was a possibility and a dead end.”
“Racists always try to make you think they are the majority, but they never are. It’s always the minority against all of the poor, all of the women, or all of the blacks.”
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
“The function of freedom is to free someone else.”
— Toni Morrison, 1979 Barnard college speech
“If you wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
On not being limited by what you know:
"When I taught creative writing at Princeton, [my students] had been told all of their lives to write what they knew. I always began the course by saying, 'Don’t pay any attention to that.' First, because you don’t know anything and second, because I don’t want to hear about your true love and your mama and your papa and your friends. Think of somebody you don’t know. What about a Mexican waitress in the Rio Grande who can barely speak English? Or what about a Grande Madame in Paris? Things way outside their camp. Imagine it, create it. Don’t record and editorialize on some event that you’ve already lived through. I was always amazed at how effective that was. They were always out of the box when they were given license to imagine something wholly outside their existence. I thought it was a good training for them. Even if they ended up just writing an autobiography, at least they could relate to themselves as strangers.
On finding universality in the specifics:
"I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little coloured girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you...If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water."
On seeing the world as a palette:
"Everything I see or do, the weather and the water, buildings...everything actual is an advantage when I am writing. It is like a menu, or a giant tool box, and I can pick and choose what I want. When I am not writing, or more important, when I have nothing on my mind for a book, then I see chaos, confusion, disorder."
On getting started:
“Your life is already artful — waiting, just waiting, for you to make it art.”
"Make up a story. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul. You...can speak the language that tells us what only language can: how to see without pictures. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”
— Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize acceptance speech
On getting divorced:
“That was the wonderful liberation of being divorced and having children. I did not mind failure, ever, but I minded thinking that someone male knew better. He knew better about his life, but not about mine. I had to stop and say, Let me start again and see what it is like to be a grown-up.”
On finding inspiration in motherhood:
“They made certain demands, but they didn’t care if I was sexy or hip, or any of those things that seem to factor in how we are judged—or at least how I was judged, as a woman in the publishing industry, by a certain kind of ambition. Other than taking rudimentary care of them, they just wanted me to be honest, and have a sense of humor, and be competent. That was simpler for me. Outside was complicated. But the writing was the real freedom, because nobody told me what to do there. That was my world and my imagination.”
On corralling her characters:
"I take control of them. They are very carefully imagined. I feel as though I know all there is to know about them, even things I don’t write—like how they part their hair. They are like ghosts. They have nothing on their minds but themselves and aren’t interested in anything but themselves. So you can’t let them write your book for you. I have read books in which I know that has happened—when a novelist has been totally taken over by a character. I want to say, You can’t do that. If those people could write books they would, but they can’t. You can. So, you have to say, Shut up. Leave me alone. I am doing this."
"There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind--wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place."
— Toni Morrison, Beloved
On being enough:
“You are your best thing.”
– Toni Morrison, Beloved
"You're turning over your whole life to him. Your whole life, girl. And if it means so little to you that you can just give it away, hand it to him, then why should it mean any more to him? He can't value you more than you value yourself."
— Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
“Your brain. That’s all there is.”