Seeing Things As They Are: Zadie Smith on Writing, Reading, and Escaping the Self

Posted on 06 March 2014

I still have quite a lot of catching up to do on this blog – specifically, I have multiple AWP recap posts in the hopper – but for now, I’d like to share some wisdom from Zadie Smith, who read in Toledo last night. My MFA cohort and I piled into a few cars and headed to the Stranahan Theater to hear Smith read her essay “Why Write,” which considers challenges today’s writers face. Here’s a slice of what she had to offer, both in her essay and in her Q&A:

On feeling stuck behind the times: To say you’re a writer in the 21st century is like saying “I like gaslights” or “I’m a town crier.”

On hard times: Is it really harder to write now than it used to be? The truth is, writers always felt neglected.

On writers vs. readers: At my readings, people come because I’m a writer and they are too. They identify as writers, not as readers.

On feeling “despair” when we write: “Despair” is a literary thing to say. To say, “When I sit in front of the computer, I feel a bit pointless,” is more realistic.

On managing the intimidating writing process: I write to simply make this sentence.

On balancing teaching, writing, mothering, reading, and more: Some weeks, none of it goes well for anybody.

On the virtues of flying: It’s hard to travel to be away from my kids, but I have that time on the plane to read.

On finding the time to write: I had to cut down on the online life. I can’t have it [the Internet] completely embedded in my life . . . It’s amazing how much time you waste online. Now that I only have 4-5 hours [to write], I can’t Google for two hours. I have to get to it faster.

On feeling confident in her own work: I don’t feel what I do is good. I don’t have that feeling. I often think it’s no good. That feeling doesn’t go away . . . I think it’s a lifelong thing.

On why it’s hard to feel that confidence: You always start over with a blank page. Clichés and idiocy and mistakes are always available to you.

On what made her become a writer: My mother had as many books in the house as possible. That’s the stuff you need if you’re going to be a writer. There’s no mystery to it.

On her children: I don’t want them to become writers.

On reading vs. writing: Reading is much more important [to me] than writing.

On what it means to be a writer: Writing lets you have the one thing that society offers in theory and obliterates in practice: self-determination. When I write . . . my self disperses. I can be everyone in fiction. Writing is a de-selfing activity.”

And last but not least:

On why we write: Why write? Because you desire to see things as they are.

For a more in-depth look at Smith’s reading, see “Zadie Smith Puts Value Back in Written Word.” And let it be known that while I was compiling this blog post, I set my stove top on fire (we’re talking a full-flame, smoke-alarm fire) because I was so engrossed in Smith’s words and didn’t realize I’d turned on the wrong burner. Everything’s okay now, but consider yourselves warned: words (and obliviousness) can start fires.

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