Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “zadie smith”

Zadie Smith on the Psychology of the Two Types of Writers

“It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word.”

On March 24, 2008, two years before she penned her oft-cited ten rules of writing, the immeasurably brilliant Zadie Smith delivered a lecture at Columbia University’s Writing Program under the brief “to speak about some aspect of your craft.” Appropriately titled “That Crafty Feeling” and included in Smith’s altogether enchanting collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (public library), the lecture outlines the ten psychological stages of writing a novel.

While invariably subjective, as all advice is, and rooted in Smith’s own experience — by that point, “twelve years and three novels” — her insights undoubtedly belong with history’s most enduring wisdom on writing.

Zadie Smith (Photograph: Francesco Guidicini)

Smith begins by proposing the two psychological profiles into which all writers fall — a dichotomy reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s hedgehog-versus-fox classification system of writerly personalities. Smith writes:

I want to offer you a pair of ugly terms for two breeds of novelist: the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager.

You will recognize a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forward or backward, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent — for me, unthinkable — radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title.

Noting her intolerance for that approach — “not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying” — Smith professes to being a Micro Manager herself:

I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal — they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line.

[…]

Opening other people’s novels, you recognize fellow Micro Managers: that opening pileup of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the twenty-page mark is passed.

But this inherent open-endedness also leaves the Micro Manager vulnerable to what Smith calls obsessive perspective disorder, or OPD — “a kind of existential drama” that unfolds over the course of the novel’s first twenty pages, possessing the writer to compulsively attempt answering the question of what kind of novel is being written. And yet, Smith marvels, despite how disorienting OPD is, it isn’t paralyzing — the writing continues throughout this straining state. In that regard, OPD appears to be, rather assuringly, mere garden-variety anxiety — the same psychic malady that tormented Darwin as he was producing his most influential work, the very state Kierkegaard believed powers creative work rather than hindering it, which psychologists have also found to be the crux of the link between creativity and mental illness. Smith writes:

That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first twenty pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters — all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

‘Paper Typewriter’ by Jennifer Collier from Art Made from Books

She considers, with a lyrical personal testament, the key blessing of her type:

There is one great advantage to being a Micro Manager rather than a Macro Planner: The last day of your novel truly is the last day. If you edit as you go along, there are no first, second, third drafts. There is only one draft, and when it’s done, it’s done. Who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those 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, overripe and stinky.

Echoing Anna Deavere Smith on the confidence trick, Smith considers what transmutes that obsessive worrying into that final moment of absolute elation and relief:

It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.

Smith goes on to sketch out another psychological dichotomy of writerly temperaments — those who “won’t read a word of any novel while they’re writing their own” and, if you err to recommend to them a good novel at that stage, “give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife”; and those who read voraciously, perhaps aware that the myth of originality is a limiting illusion anyway and that all writers, as Pete Seeger memorably put it, are but links in a creative chain. Smith illustrates this with a beautiful metaphor:

Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra — they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even.

It seems, then, that what is true of the optimal physical environment for writing — the finding that some writers are vitalized by background noise, while others woefully distracted by it — also applies to the optimal intellectual and creative environment of the writer. Noting that it’s “a matter of temperament,” Smith admits to being among the latter — a writer whose desk is “covered in open novels” and who finds enormous creative nourishment in the Kafkas and Nabokovs and Dostoyevskys, a writer who thrives on that peculiar “feeling of apprenticeship” one experiences in absorbing the work of a master in one’s own craft, a product of what Oscar Wilde once described as “the temperament of receptivity.” She writes:

To [the former] way of thinking, the sovereignty of one’s individuality is the vital thing, and it must be protected at any price, even if it means cutting oneself off from that literary echo chamber E. M. Forster described, in which writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

For me, that echo chamber was essential. I was fourteen when I heard John Keats in there and in my mind I formed a bond with him, a bond based on class — though how archaic that must sound, here in America. Keats was not working-class, exactly, nor black — but in rough outline his situation seemed closer to mine than the other writers you came across. He felt none of the entitlement of, say, Virginia Woolf, or Byron, or Pope, or Evelyn Waugh or even P. G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering writing from a side door, the one marked “Apprentices Welcome Here.”

‘Flights of Mind’ by Vita Wells from Art Made from Books

Smith dubs the fourth stage of novel-writing “middle-of-the-novel magical thinking,” which she describes in a passage that tickled my affection for punctuation and its emotive power:

By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on 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 — I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semicolon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind.

Smith is essentially describing a state of creative flow. But, more than anything else, the phenomenon she describes — that immersive, elated intimacy with the work — parallels what we experience when we’re in love, a resonance she doesn’t explicitly tease out but one her language very much implies:

Magical thinking makes you crazy — and renders everything possible.

Illustration by Tove Jansson for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland

How similar this is to Stendhal’s notion of “crystallization” from his 1822 meditation on the stages of love — the transcendently delusional moment when the lover begins to “overrate wildly” his beloved, to “endow her with a thousand perfections.” Stendhal likens this mental trickery that “draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one” to the covering of an ordinary twig with magical ice crystals that wholly obscure its true nature — the same process Smith describes when a writer reaches that pivotal point of falling in love with her unfinished novel as a proxy for the fantasy of her finished novel.

This state, she observes, makes you marvel at “how in tune the world is with your unfinished novel right now” as you begin to feel that every experience you have, everything you encounter in the world, has direct and almost fated relevance to your novel. Indeed, who, while in love, hasn’t had the experience of suddenly feeling like every poem, every song, every book has been written, as if by some grand act of cosmic blessing, for that particular love? Who hasn’t been stunned by the recognition of some mundane coincidence — your lover’s aunt once visited the foreign city where you were born — and taken it as confirmation of fatedness? We are remarkable machines for spiritual pattern-recognition, in love and in creative work. Both the peril and the promise of being human is that we can manufacture nonexistent patterns by the sheer force of our state of mind, so hungry for psychic alignment between our soul and that of the beloved, between our work and the needs of the world.

Smith proceeds to offer her “only absolutely twenty-four-karat-gold-plated piece of advice,” a strategy that serves, in a way, as deliberate melting of the crystals so that one may prune the twig:

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. A year or more is ideal — but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. 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 onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place.

[…]

You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in twelve different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.

Elsewhere in the lecture, Smith touches on this psychological distancing in observing the writer’s tendency to think, from book to book, “My God, I was a different person!” But we are, in fact, profoundly different people throughout life — such is the greatest perplexity of the human self and the reason why we so pathologically hinder the happiness of our future selves. Even more than being a “professional observer” of the world, as Susan Sontag once described the project of the writer, she has no choice but to become a professional observer of her inner world — something impossible without this very distancing that allows the writer to gasp with precisely such disbelief at her own otherness in hindsight. To edit one’s own work, Smith seems to suggest, is to not only reluctantly recognize but actively inhabit one’s own transmutation over time. She captures this wryly:

When people tell me they have just read that book, I do try to feel pleased, but it’s a distant, disconnected sensation, like when someone tells you they met your second cousin in a bar in Goa.

Changing My Mind is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. For more advice on the craft, see this ongoing archive of wisdom on writing, including Nietzsche’s ten rules for writers, Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, Susan Sontag’s synthesized wisdom, and Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing.

BP

Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing

“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

In the winter of 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing published in The New York Times nearly a decade earlier, The Guardian reached out to some of today’s most celebrated authors and asked them to each offer his or her rules. My favorite is Zadie Smith’s list — an exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic, and a fine addition to this ongoing omnibus of great writers’ advice on the craft.

Zadie Smith (Photograph: Francesco Guidicini)

Smith counsels:

  1. When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
  2. When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
  3. Don’t romanticise your ‘vocation.’ You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no ‘writer’s lifestyle.’ All that matters is what you leave on the page.
  4. Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
  5. Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
  6. Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
  7. Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.
  8. Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
  9. Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
  10. Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand — but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.

What a fine addition to famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft, including Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 rules for a great story, David Ogilvy’s 10 no-bullshit tips, Henry Miller’s 11 commandments, Jack Kerouac’s 30 beliefs and techniques, John Steinbeck’s 6 pointers, and Susan Sontag’s synthesized learnings.

Complement with Smith on the psychology of the two types of writers.

BP

Anna Deavere Smith on the Importance of Bringing Light to History’s Shadows and Resisting the Destructive Patterns Handed Down to Us by Our Invisible Pasts

“A beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.”

“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in reflecting on Jewishness, the immigrant plight for identity, and the meaning of “refugee.” A refusal to perpetrate such social murder is what led Leonard Cohen to leave out the verse about the relationship between Blacks and Jews from his now-iconic song “Democracy.” When asked about the decision, he offered: “I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.”

The everyday bloodless murders that stand in the way of such revelations in the heart are what Anna Deavere Smith limns in a few stirring passages from Talk to Me: Listening Between the Lines (public library) — her remarkable memoir exploring the relationship between the personal and the political through the art of listening in a culture of speaking.

Anna Deavere Smith (Photograph: Mary Ellen Mark)

In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s assertion that “we live in the word,” Smith locates the seedbed of prejudice in the unwillingness to hear each other’s stories:

It may be that cultures with fewer words are in less danger than we are. So many of our words are being contorted, mangled, stretched, distorted in public life. I’m surprised they survive. I’m surprised they mean anything.

So suspicious is the ear. Its structure has changed. We sit with only one ear toward the speaker, and the other is tuned to the nonexistent next beat.

A self-described “Negro girl from Baltimore raised in segregation,” Smith lived through integration at the age of eleven and attended a predominantly Jewish school in an era of raging antisemitism, in a culture she recalls as one with “no boyfriends and girlfriends across racial lines, or religious lines.” In a sentiment Zadie Smith would come to echo a generation later in observing that “things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” Anna Deavere Smith writes:

History always lurks, changing reality into shadowed moments that are haunted by a past.

Art by Margaret Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

She shines a disquieting beam of awareness on the lattice of shadows lurking in her own childhood:

Whites didn’t play with blacks, or Jews, for that matter, and Reform Jews didn’t play with Orthodox Jews, and Orthodox Jews didn’t play with Jews fresh from Europe who didn’t speak English. Even Jews made fun of a Jewish girl with a Russian accent who brought sandwiches made of meat with a strong smell and purple horseradish, despised her for being so not “of it.”

Children breathing in that cultural atmosphere came to understand, as the young Smith did, that bullying can take many forms — that the archetypal bullies who wield fists are not the only ones who “exploit our unspoken hostility for us.” Reflecting on the less obvious but often more pernicious forms of bullying, Smith recounts the story of a little Jewish girl from her class named Lila:

Perhaps beatings are subverted when “shoulds” appear in a group. Those subverted headings transform into another type of hostility… Lila was beat up with humiliation.

[…]

Our homeroom teacher was a black woman who was not particularly popular. She was also our science teacher. She had to fight to get control of the room. I can only imagine what it was for her, too, to be in integration for the first time, probably having been educated in segregation (I know, for example, that she had gone to a black college) and now having to teach in this “loaded” integrated school. By Christmastime, we calmed down. She “proved” herself to us and we actually felt warmly toward her. The class decided to buy her a Christmas present. A rumor started that Lila, who was the quietest person in the room, Lila, who never ever had to be told to sit down, to be quiet, to do anything, Lila, who simply came to school and went home, who never seemed to socialize with anyone . . . Lila was not going to chip in for the Christmas present. Her parents wouldn’t allow it. This became our headline for two weeks or so: what we were going to do about it, how we were going to vote in terms of ostracizing Lila.

A tall, beautiful black girl (who was pregnant and would soon be forced to leave school) began some of the mockery toward Lila. I remember that it pained me. I also remember how surprised I was that the Jewish kids (again, the predominant population) began to turn against Lila too. What had started as a sort of 50–50 vote about whether to buy a Christmas present at all, now turned into 99 percent for the present, and Lila on her own. No one took her to the schoolyard and threatened to beat her up, no one stuck her head down the toilet, but the daily vote would be taken, the vote toward unanimous for buying the present or not, and as the days went on Lila became stronger and stronger in her position. The teacher would be out of the room. The tall, beautiful black girl would take the vote.

Every day Lila would sit with no expression on her face as we lifted our hands. Her hands stayed firmly planted on the desk. Her parents did not celebrate Christmas, and they would not allow her to buy a present for the teacher. I did not know if the fact of the teacher being black complicated it on another level. Lila never cried, she simply sat quietly as all kinds of things were said, and she never explained anything further. In fact, I don’t remember her ever saying anything — it was simply known she would not be chipping in for the gift.

Finally, the teacher got wind of the whole thing and shamed us all by saying, as she should have, that in this spirit she didn’t really want a Christmas present, and that Lila should not be forced to participate if her religion wouldn’t allow it. I remember this story because it was the first time I saw that a beating — even a public beating — could happen without anyone so much as striking a blow.

Smith’s Talk to Me is a fantastic read in its entirety, mapping through the stories of people she talked to over the course of twenty-five years — people ranging from a YMCA lifeguard to an inmate in a women’s prison to Christopher Hitchens — the possible paths before us as we work to unstrike those history-shadowed blows. Complement it with Mark Twain on compassion and how religion is used to justify injustice, Albert Einstein on the interconnectedness of our fates, and Elie Wiesel’s superb Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech about our shared duty in ending injustice, then revisit Anna Deavere Smith on the discipline of not letting others define you.

BP

Patti Smith, Umberto Eco, and Other Celebrated Contemporary Authors Offer Their Advice to Aspiring Writers

“Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money… If you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.”

For several years, I’ve been compiling an evolving library of timeless advice on writing from more than one hundred of the craft’s greatest masters, dead and alive — authors like Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, and dozens more.

Now, the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art’s Louisiana Chanel offers a bite-sized counterpart of advice to aspiring writers from eleven acclaimed contemporary authors from around the world: Jonathan Franzen, Lydia Davis, Alaa Al-Aswany, Herbjørg Wassmo, Richard Ford, Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, Lars Norén, Umberto Eco, Patti Smith, Sjón, and Kjell Askildsen. Transcribed highlights below — please enjoy:

Patti Smith, whose most recent memoir remains one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, on maintaining creative integrity, not compromising, and the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs, which stayed with her for life:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.

Umberto Eco, who has offered his more extensive advice to aspiring writers elsewhere, on working your way up rather than aiming straight for grandeur:

You cannot become a General if you [have not] been before a corporal, a sergeant, a lieutenant… So, go step by step.

Alaa Al-Aswany, echoing Jack Kerouac’s thoughts on whether writers are born or made, on talent and dedication:

You are talented, but you must know that the talent is not the end — it is just the beginning, and you must keep the writing as the most important thing in your life. And whenever you feel that the writing is not the most important thing in you life, you’d better stop writing — because you will never make any difference.

Ngūgī wa Thiong’o, in a sentiment reminiscent of Leonard Cohen on hard work and the creative process, on doggedness as the route to refinement:

The secret of writing is this: Write, write, write, and write again — and you will get it right.

Kjell Askildsen, with all of his 87 years’ worth of wisdom, echoes Steinbeck’s counter-advice and offers:

Don’t take any advice. Write based on who you are and what you’ve learned from the books you have enjoyed the most.

Lars Norén on letting your life speak:

If you want to become a poet, an artist — you can’t fight it. If you want to be that, you will. It’s not about desire — it’s about necessity. There’s no other way.

[…]

You have to trust your inner drive, for the disappointments and the efforts are so tough that you must have an inner conviction that this is what you want.

Sjón, calling to mind Maurice Sendak’s insistence on keeping our inner child alive, on the raw material of our individual inspiration:

My advice to a young writer would be that he or she works with he or she is made of, and by that I mean that we should not be afraid of working with the things that fascinated us when we were at our most impressionable… We are all informed by the things that fascinate us and excite us when we are quite young.

Lydia Davis, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s spirited defense of creative integrity over commercial success, on working with love:

Don’t ever cave in to the pressure of publishers or agents… Do what you want to do and don’t worry if it’s a little odd or doesn’t fit the market.

Complement with Seamus Heaney’s words of wisdom to the young, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Hemingway’s reading list for those starting out, and Jane Kenyon’s magnificent advice on writing, which doubles as some of the finest life-advice you’ll ever receive.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated. Privacy policy.