Toni Morrison and Julia Leigh

A year of mentoring

Overview (Chapter 1 of 3)

“At one stage, I thought of putting my manuscript on hold and beginning something entirely different. Toni shook her head: ‘No, no.’” Protégée Julia Leigh, speaking about the encouragement she received from Toni Morrison. For the first part of mentoring year, Julia Leigh lived in Paris, travelling to Princeton in winter 2002 to meet Morrison. In early April 2003, Leigh moved to New York City to be in close proximity to her mentor. Throughout the year she worked on her second novel, sending sections of it to Morrison for comments and discussions. Leigh reported that their meetings and Morrison’s support and close reading of the work-in-progress were extremely beneficial.

Toni Morrison and Julia Leigh

A year of mentoring

Meetings (Chapter 2 of 3)

Working mentor
“I’m not a chatty mentor,“ says Morrison, who acts as a mentor to class after class of Princeton undergraduates. “I’m a working mentor. I can’t talk about nothing. I have to have stuff. It’s not like working with a dancer, who comes in to the teacher every day and can be told: ‘Straighten your leg’.”

Marking up the manuscript
“I left the publishing industry in 1983. Today, there are few real editors any more. The title now is all about acquisitions. It has nothing to do with working on the text. Julia has never been line edited before which shows you how good she is. Now, when I get her work, I mark it up. We talk about it. What to delete. What to put back. The first time you work that way with someone else is critical. What happens? Are you going to get upset because somebody wrote on your manuscript?”

Learning to rewrite
“Julia got to the point right off. She knows now that what she needs is more of that. We go over every comma, from A to Z. We talk about when to release information, when to withhold it. What the dialogue should sound like. Things like that. There’s a prep-school notion that you get things right the first time. But more you write, the more you realise that you can rewrite. The point, in the end, is to make way for the inevitable.”

Birth pangs
“This is very exciting for me,” Morrison says. “And I suspect it’s frustrating for Julia. Birthpages are so painful. I’m midwife, observing. My job is going swimmingly, but she’s the one in labour. She may want natural childbirth, or drugs to help with the pain. She may want to go into warm water. And I say: Are you sure? Are you sure? She is figuring it out, but it’s a question of an inevitable birth. You can’t put the baby back into the womb. This is precisely the interesting place to be for me!”

Letting go
“Then there comes a moment when the thing happens, and it’s there, and then I let go. At that point, the job is all hers. No one can write your book for you. As midwives, we can’t own things. Relationships with a mentor are most successful when the mentor knows that you don’t control. It’s a question of being there, then relinquish. Strike the match, light the fire. Then let it burn.”

Toni Morrison and Julia Leigh

A year of mentoring

Impact (Chapter 3 of 3)

Professional
Through Morrison, Leigh has expanded her circle of acquaintances. She has met literary figures such as acclaimed novelist Mary Gordon at Princeton and New York University.

Personal
“When I was writing my first book,” Leigh says, “my career path was just one metre long: the distance from my bed to my desk. It was valuable to interact with someone who has crafted a life as a writer. See it’s possible!”