On Writing

The June 2008 issue of The Believer has reprinted a lecture on writing that Zadie Smith gave to students in the Columbia University Writing Program earlier in the year. At the outset she distinguishes between writing a story and writing about the process or “craft” involved in writing the story itself.

When someone asks me to write a story I feel they’re giving me a comprehensible block of stone and my job is to carve out whatever shape I thinks within it.

But a lecture on craft…at once something fraudulent creeps into the enterprise…I don’t believe in craft in the abstract.

When writers talk about writing, my ears perk up. Not so much because they will teach me how to write. No one can do that. But rather because I often pick up on very general tactics on what to do after the writing is finished or in a draft form. If there is one rule that is easy to learn and often mentioned, yet so very difficult to apply, it is rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.

Smith concurs: I reworked those first twenty five pages [of Beauty] for almost two years.

She also encourages the writer to listen to find a rhythm that seems to fit the mood of the piece that is being written. One way to do this is to listen to the rhythms of other writers who for one reason or another have written in the desired “tempo.”

My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight.

I did not make note of the ten short sections of her essay that describe the various stages of novel writing, at least her novels, but I did record the following additional passages in her witty and very amusing essay.

The only time I feel I’m writing honestly about craft…is when I have a specific piece of fiction in my sights….

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

Reading about craft is like listening to yourself breathe. Wring about craft prompts a self-consciousness so acute one forgets how to exhale altogether.

[There are] two breeds of novelist: The Macro Planner and The Micro Manager….A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page.

Personally, I’m a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last…I haven’t the slightest idea what the ending will be until I get to it…

…writing is more than elegant sentences. The only rule is quality.

…reading great literature creates a sense of oppression. For how can you pipe out your little mouse song when Kafka’s Josephine the mouse singer pipes so much more loudly and beautifully than you ever could?

The term “role model” is so odious, but the truth is it’s a very strong writer indeed who gets by without a model kept somewhere in mind. So I think of Keats.

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second—put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage.

The secret to editing work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.

I find it very hard to read my books after they’re published. I’ve never read White Teeth. Five years ago I tried; I got about ten sentences in before I was overwhelmed with nausea.