Zadie Smith on the craft of writing

Zadie Smith, giving a lecture on the craft of writing, admitted that despite being an award-winning author with a multitude of acclaimed books to her name, she feels uniquely unqualified to expand on the topic.

“A lecture on craft… at once something fraudulent creeps into the enterprise, there’s a whiff of snake oil. I speak from experience, having written a few Art of Fiction polemics and regretted them all. In my opinion one should run, not walk, from any essay entitled The Art of Fiction that is not about the art of a particular piece of fiction, or -several.”

The author of White Teeth, her breakthrough novel, admits, while she doesn’t find fiction writing easy, she finds talking about how to write even more of a challenge. Who would have thought? The novelist says every piece of fiction has its own rules.

“Craft is too grand and foreign a word to describe what gets done most days in your pajamas.”

Since that first book, Zadie Smith has written numerous novels including Swing Time, On Beauty and NW, along with short stories, nonfiction, essays and personal reflections in the last two decades. Intimations, a collection of six essays written during the early part of the lockdown, is soon to be published. For all of us who have been living in varying states of lockdown, this should offer some insight and perspective on the experience.

Analysis of the craft, while indispensable for those who care about fiction and are dedicated to its analysis and critique after the fact, can’t help a writer as she is in the process of writing. When writing, you need to develop your own rules and your own private language for your work, according to her. To write, one needs to not become too attentive to the intimate third person in the work.

One of the more shocking parts of her essay is where she explains how she will discard writing advice and quotes about writing easily, even when they may have been guiding lights to her process for a particular novel. It’s akin to each new book replacing another in style and process.

“Other people’s words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write. For me, the excitement of a new novel lies almost entirely in the repudiation of the one I wrote before.”

Magical thinking takes over somewhere in the middle of the novel-writing process. If you’ve ever been completely engrossed in a creative experience, you’ll know that feeling of being engrossed and taken over by the work. For writers, it is the experience of the characters coming to life and the real world receding as they do. 

“When you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post.”

“Magical Thinking makes you crazy—and renders everything possible.”

There’s a rule in writing and it’s known as ‘kill your darlings’. Your darlings are the hard won prose that you’ve slaved over, sweated over and poured yourself into creating. And to create a fine piece of fiction, you need to slash a lot of them to get to the best of your story.

Along these lines, Zadie Smith describes the process of scaffolding. All the writing that the writers feels has to be put up in order to stage the story – and how a book is often better off with all the scaffolding gone.

“I use scaffolding to hold up my confidence when I have none, to reduce the despair, and to feel that what I’m doing has a goal, some endpoint that I can see. I use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey, though by doing this, like Zeno, I infinitely extend the distance I need to go.”

One of the most moving sections of her essay is where she describes the experience of completing a manuscript. She is a planner, rather than a by the seat of your pants writers, and edits as she goes so the last day really is her last day of writing.

“I think sometimes that the main reason for writing novels is to experience this extraordinary four and a half hours after you write the final word.”

“The last time it happened to me I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there for a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, over-ripe and stinky.”

Then you need to step away from the vehicle and leave the work for as long as possible, not months but years, to see it clearly and be able to see it with clarity and know how to polish it.

“It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.”

A Note on Zadie Smith’s other writing

You can read a transcript of the full lecture online. Whether you’ve read Zadie Smith’s novels or have ever tried your hand at writing or you’re just as an interested reader, it’s certainly a revealing journey into the mind and process of a singular novelist. 

Zadie Smith’s website has more about her work.

From Brain Pickings has this piece is about Zadie Smith and the two types of writers – big picture planners or micro managers. If you’ve ever tried creative writing, you’ll know which of these camps you fit into and how it guides your process.

A collection of her articles for The New Yorker.

On self-doubt, from The Guardian.

A profile of Zadie Smith from The Gentlewoman.

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Rosalyn Page
Journalist, blogger and writer covering arts, culture, travel and digital lifestyle at www.rosalynpage.com and www.somenotesfromabroad.com.

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