In our series of letters from African-American journalists, novelist and writer Toni Morrison reflects on her career as a writer

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When I was 16, I began to write and publish my own newspaper column. It was
called “My Life on a Page.” It was an act of rebellion against the life my
father and my aunts had lived. I wrote about what I saw, the things I
observed. My column got me some notoriety, but my writing attracted the
attention of the press, which accused me of being one of the “angry young
girls.” The press said that because I had gone into a girls’ school, I must
be a lesbian. That really bothered me, so I decided to write a book about not
feeling like a lesbian. I didn’t know anything about publishing, but I went to
the local bookstore and asked the owner if one could print stories. He took
me to a bookstore upstairs and showed me some books about publishing. He said
that people were always trying to get into publishing, and if you were a great
writer, it would just take you a little time to get through them all to
prove you were a great writer. He explained that there were over 20,000
books in print in the country, of which 10,000 were fiction. And that 10,000
were self-published. After I had been in the shop about fifteen minutes, he
looked at me and said, “If you want to publish a book, start writing.”

So I did. I created a book titled Misfit Princess, which was published
by Penguin Books in 1983 which was a best seller and made it into a movie
called Anastasia. It told a story of a young girl who falls in love with a
man who’s already in love with a woman. At the very end of the movie, the two
girls get married. It wasn’t a romantic movie. It was a satire of the society
of the time. I’m not sure why, but the media liked it. After I wrote the book,
I couldn’t wait to tell all my friends and family, and the books are still in
print.

I also wrote a screenplay about a woman who falls in love with her body and a
man who falls in love with the body of a woman. It was based on a stage play
of the same name, which was about a young girl who falls in love with a man
who is dying of AIDS. The story was also based on the life of a young woman
who lived in Los Angeles in the early 1970s.

Then there was an article about a girl in a girls’ school. She was writing a
book about not feeling like a lesbian based on many of the experiences she
had with her parents, boyfriends, girlfriends and teachers. After I wrote the
article, I had the nerve to write back and accuse her of being a lesbian. It
didn’t make any difference to her, but I was hurt and I still love her to this
day. The story didn’t make any money. And that’s when I decided it wasn’t
my calling to be a writer. I realized that I had a creative talent. I loved to
write, and I am not a writer. So I decided to take acting classes in graduate
school that would put me in touch with the world of acting.

There are always two sides to every story. Mine was a dark story, and my
brother’s is a light story. In 1985, my brother started going to a drug
treatment program and a church program. He had been in several prisons, and
he knew that he had to leave behind the things that did not belong there. In
those two programs, he found peace and contentment and love, and he was soon
well enough to leave the prison walls behind. But what he learned there, what
we had to learn there, was a lifetime commitment to a second chance. He had to
go from doing something that he loved to something that he knew was wrong. He
had a choice, and he chose to be free. Our father had a choice, and he chose
to let a woman have a baby. He chose to let his own children go to bed in the
morning. He chose to be a good enough husband to his wife. He chose to be a
good enough father to his children. He chose to be a good enough person to
his family.

That kind of pain can only be healed with grace. One of the first things that
my father did when he came home from the prison was to take my mother to
Tahoe Meadows. It had been his dream to see her again. Since she had left him
when he was very young, he had lost track of her. He was happy to see her. He
started a relationship with her. He realized that she had been trying to
persuade him to be more like his father. The things that hurt him most were
hurt because he was not a man who would do what his father didn’t do. He
needed to do what his father did. He needed to be the kind of husband and
father his father never really knew or needed. That was his way of honoring
his father, and it also gave him the chance to be the wife and mother he wanted.
That’s the kind of man that my brother was.

So it was not surprising that when my brother came home, my father was doing
what my father, his father and his father’s father had done all his life. My
father was making an effort to be a better man. He found work as a janitor at
a restaurant in Santa Rosa, where he made $15 a day. At night, he was a server
at a nearby tavern, where he made $8 and $10 a day. He made $11 in the morning
and $6 in the afternoon, and he made about $4 a day on Saturdays.

My brother was not a man who wanted to do what he saw his father doing. As he
came back from prison, it was clear to him that he had to stop his father’s
behavior before he came back to hurt him. After all, he was not his father. He
was a man who needed to live up to the standards that his father never lived
up to. I know my father would have understood my brother’s decision to do that
when he was that age.

When he became a father, he was no longer a father to his own children. That’s
what his children never really knew or needed. He loved them, and he loved to
babysit them. He loved to buy them presents and watch their kids when they
came to visit. When they were sick, he went to the hospital to be there for
them. He saw them grow and he saw them grow up. Then as they all were growing
up, he went to work and took care of them when they were growing up.

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