Five Things Zadie Smith Taught Me

imgres-1If you know me, you know my love for Zadie Smith extends from everything she writes to most things she says and does. She’s the only author in my top five with whom I’ve had the privilege to meet, and this has made her seem to me even more of a respectable, brilliant individual and writer. (I’ve actually considered applying to NYU’s MFA program for the sole reason of having a shot at taking her class.) I went to see her speak a few weeks ago, and I’ve been meaning to post about the experience ever since. There were so many interesting nuggets of literary advice and, well, human advice, and I tried to capture as many things that spoke to me as possible. Below is my attempt at regurgitating some of the more impactful things she said, as well as advice I’ve garnered from her other works.

Writers are Artists.

Some of you make look at this and say, uh, yeah? But truthfully, not every writer considers themselves an artist, or views what they do as an art form. (Which is sad, because as other writers will tell you, this shit ain’t easy!) Whether you’re a poet, a short story writer, a novelist, an essayist, a science fiction geek, a historical fiction buff, you are an artist. Or a wordsmith, if you so choose.

When asked about her process, Zadie responded simply that she wants to “capture beauty in her sentences.” She added that by doing this she seeks to capture the bigger picture. Which, if you’ve ever read her stuff, you know how keenly aware she is in her poignant observations of how we interact with one another. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do? No matter what you write or how you write it, we’re trying to find beauty here, and doing it in a way that points to a larger story of us as a whole. How is that not being an artist?

We lie. We do it well. And we do it all the time.

We lie to the people we don’t know, we lie to people we love, and we lie to ourselves. Smith put it this way: (paraphrasing) “My husband and I will get into an awful argument, ripping each other apart, absolutely screaming, and then five minutes later the guests will arrive for dinner and we’re all ‘Hello, come in, come in!’ Like, dear God, we just spent the last hour breaking each other down, saying the absolute nastiest things to one another, and now here we are, smiling at company.”

She emphasized this idea when discussing the two main characters in her book NW, Leah imgres-3Hanwell and Keisha/Natalie Blake. The women are each searching for something, but have no real idea what it is they’re searching for. Or, in the case of Natalie as an adult, she may think she knows exactly what she wants, but in reality she has no idea at all. Smith posited that this is a reflection of ourselves as people, that we lie to ourselves about our motivations, or we don’t really understand our motivations at all, and so we certainly can’t understand the motivations of even the people we love and are supposed to know the most, and this idea is truly our shared experience.

So if this is true (and I think most of us, even when we don’t want to admit it, know it is), wouldn’t it follow that our characters (which we try to make as life-like and non-boring as possible) should also be just as confusing, unintentionally manipulative and not completely aware of their own motives as we are? That certainly throws out the “I just don’t get your character’s intentions” critique that’s certainly tossed around in every writers workshop ever.

Write your novel. Then completely remove its structure.

imgres-2In her 2009 book of essays, Changing My Mind, Smith calls this idea “Dismantling the Scaffolding.” The point here is, 99% of us enter into writing a novel with a definite structure. There will be 12 chapters. Three sections. Twenty chapters. No chapters, but defining points of structure. We all do this, all the time. We like to develop the structure of our novels first, so it doesn’t seem like such a mammoth thing. But what we’re really doing is limiting ourselves.

Smith argues, “Scaffolding holds up confidence when you have none, reduced the despair, creates a goal – however artificial – an end point. Use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey, though by doing this, like Zeno, you infinitely extend the distance you need to go.” The message here: just write! Get the story out! If you need structure in order to not make yourself crazy, then put it up, but don’t feel so stressed about taking it down when the novel’s complete.

There’s a certain point in the middle of novel writing when everything starts to feel like it belongs in your novel. 

You’re on your way to work, walking on the sidewalk when bam! That guy over there, the way he flicked his cigarette into that other person’s front yard without looking back to make sure it didn’t land on the pile of dead leaves sitting right there. That’s exactly something [insert name of character] would do!

Or, you’re on the bus, your headphones off (why are your headphones off?)  when suddenly, the overheard conversation happening behind you is exactly the dialogue you need to round out a scene you’ve been working on.

It happens often. When I read this passage in Smith’s essay collection, I laughed out loud, because I could feel the truth of the sentiment. I was at the time deep into the first large piece of fiction I ever wrote, and suddenly, everything fit. The scenes around me produced descriptions with tailored sentences and words I’d never even used before. The people I met fit perfectly in with the characters I’d created. The overheard bits of conversation formed and evolved into character dialogue. This is working! I suddenly thought. Paragraphs fell into place. Structural issues began to resolve themselves.

This, Smith refers to as “Middle-of-the-Novel-Magical-Thinking” and it tends to be accompanied by the kind of “ah-hah” moment described as the time when everything in your novel suddenly clicks. The outside world is tuned completely out, and all that matters is the novel. This can be a beautiful thing. It can also destroy relationships a-la “I’m leaving you” “Okay, hun, let me just finish this paragraph and I’ll be right with you!”

Writers will always go through the struggle of being a writer.

Famous writers: they’re just like us! This is my favorite gem from Smith, the one bit of imgresknowledge that made me feel like I’m not the only totally crazy writer in the world. Smith told the large, eager audience at Penn that she still goes through the waves of total neuroticism and lack of confidence when beginning a novel. She famously said this in an interview with Interview Magazine when discussing having to edit and re-edit the ending of NW, describing the exasperated feeling of “can’t I just give up and go do my teaching job?”

It’s an overwhelming feeling, when the little bits and pieces of story lines and characters begin to fall into something larger, and you have the first moment of, hey, this might work… From there it’s a long haul. A long, gratifying, exciting haul, but still a long haul.

Smith’s advice for the tormented? “Find the will to believe you are a writer.”


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