Tuesday, January 16, 2007

I have a mad writer crush on Zadie Smith

because she writes things like this:

[Once] you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment - once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognise and do not believe in - what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language.

and this:
Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry - we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing - great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighbourhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non- sequitur, a dog dances in the street.

and this:
Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic.

Marilyn asked a long time ago what I thought constituted good prose, or good style, and I've been thinking about the question for a while. My answer thus far is "observation and surprise" -- observation, that the writer tells the truth as s/he sees it, and it's a human truth one recognizes (if not necessarily relates to immediately); and surprise, in that I have never seen this truth described that way before, and the newness and rightness of it delights me. Ms. Smith's essay here touches on this question of style and others, and is eminently worth reading; many thanks to Monica for pointing it out.


  1. This is a timely post. Last night I finished reading ON BEAUTY. I am utterly, hopelessly in love with Zadie Smith.

    May I challenge you to a duel?

    Leslie Muir

  2. Cheryl,
    You asked an excellent question on your blog a week ago. What would I do with 45 minutes to spare? The discussion took an interesting, if heated, turn but no one really answered your question and that’s a shame because it really struck a chord with me. As I writer it happens to me all the time.

    Here’s what I do when my 4 children are due on the school bus in 45 minutes. Ideally, I’d have the whole school day to write, but I went to my critique group this morning for 2 hours; a thing I never miss. I skipped lunch and went straight to the freelance teaching job I have once a week to make ends meet at home. (I gave up my teaching career 10 years ago to focus on writing.) So now the bus is on the way, shall I:
    a) clean up my appallingly messy house
    b) take a shower
    c) work on the work-for-hire story for the curriculum publisher – it’s due in a week and they will pay me cash money a week after I turn it in.
    d) write a quick back-to-school article I know I can sell in half a dozen parenting magazines in the next month or so. Not great pay, but reliable.
    e)revise for the 10th time the almost-but-not-quite-right picture book
    f) revise my lesson plan for the teaching job because I know I can do better for my students if I tweek the assignment a bit.
    g) research this cool new idea I have about a novel with sailing and political intrigue.
    h) work on the chapter my group critiqued that needs a TON of work
    i) make brownies
    j) call my sister.
    k) get the mail
    l) check my email and browse my favorite blogs
    m) balance my checkbook

    So here’s what I did:
    1) threw in a load of laundry (the eternal task in a household of 6) 2 min.
    2) put together a casserole, popped it in the oven on time delayed bake. (a lifesaving feature) 15 min.
    3)put my computer and the notes from my morning critique by the door with my kids’ dance bags and set out a snack. 1 min
    4) check the mail and email only, no blogs. 5 minutes
    5) nap. 22 minutes

    Why the nap, I hear you cry.
    Because I’m so tired I can't see straight, and I have to drive my kids to dance right after school. Also, I will have 3 hours at the dance studio to digest my critique and revise my chapter. It’s loud, and I’ll have to check homework, and hand out band aids from time to time, but I can work there. I’ve done it twice a week for years. The work goes fairly well and I get a hunch about how I can fix the problem in my chapter, so I add a few disjointed notes, gather up my dancers, and head home.

    Dinner is done, so the shower, eat, chat, check homework, hug and get the younger kids in bed, phase of the evening goes pretty smoothly. My wonderful husband cleans up the kitchen, and my teenagers finish the laundry, so I can get back to work by 9:30 or so. I put in an hour and a half on the curriculum job because those guys are going to pay me, and I have a deadline.

    But that problem in my chapter is still bugging me, so I switch off the evening news and take another swing at it. A page and a half later the writing is still crappy but the problem with my character is fixed. I’ll clean up the prose another day. What’s left? A shower at last!

    Yes it’s after midnight, but don’t you dare feel sorry for me. I chose to be a writer and I’m incredibly lucky to have a busy family life. It took me forever to break in just like everyone else, but I’m happy to say I just sold my first novel this year to an editor who gave me polite rejections for years on stories that I was sure would be perfect for him and his publishing house. But he said try again, so I started over and wrote something better.

    Okay, I admit that I pouted over those rejections, but then I realized that if I’m going to be a career writer, I’m going to have to start over and write something better every year anyway, so I might as well start practicing now.

    So there it is, an exceedingly long-winded answer to what this writer does with her spare 45 minutes.

    Thanks for sharing your working day with us. I hope this is as helpful to you as your post was to me.


  3. Yay! Brain food! Lovely stuff!

    Here are my favorite bits…

    “What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives.”

    “For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.”

    The part about clich├ęs and “rummaging through the purse” cracked me up too.

    Thanks Cheryl! (And for extra bonus points tie this into picture books and how a good one changes or expands a child’s view of the world in a new way. I would guess that it would be in a smaller more intimate way, up close and simple.)

    Now my mind is flipping through all the books I’ve read and which ones changed the way I looked at the world. Hmmm…

    Best thoughts,