rules for writing

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Zadie Smith

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We all have our heros, and Zadie Smith is one of mine. After reading her first novel, White Teeth (written at the age of 22 no less) in 2000, I was hooked.

So of course I was in one of the front rows of very full auditorium at the MFA on Thursday night to hear her speak. Very pregnant but still her gracefully statuesque self, Smith’s lecture was titled Why Write? She said her thoughts on that topic were written as a lecture for her students at NYU. But her wisdom is ageless and timely for all of us—including creatives in other fields—and at no point is she telling anyone what to do or how to do it. “I hate the patronizing of the young,” she said at some point. That attitude, combined with her spectacularly clear intelligence, talent and presence, would suggest that she is a gifted teacher as well.

The spirit of her thinking is captured in her list of 10 rules for writers published in The Guardian last year. It is so Zadie Smith—straightforward, thoughtful, poetic, and never condescending.

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.

A few other comments she shared on Thursday night stood out for me. She sees us entering a new era that redefines the relationship between the writer and the reader. She like writing essays because the goal is to be as clear as possible. “Novels, on the other hand, are a messier prospect.” While she was raised with the “western canon” during her education in the U.K., she doesn’t believe it is a viable concept anymore.

These phrases also stood out for me:

“Writing is my way of achieving radical ambiguity.”
“Disperse yourself in language.”
White Teeth—That’s juvenilia to me now.”

When asked which authors influence her, she said her husband (Nick Laird) is the first to read what she writes because “he is in the house after all” (this was not delivered with a dismissive tone, just practical.) The only other writer she mentioned by name whose work she loves was George Saunders*. When she said his name I had to smile: There I sat, in the Remis Auditorium, listening to Zadie Smith, with Saunders’ latest book, The Tenth of December, on my lap. But then again, of course. I have a connection with her that runs deeper than a book or two.

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*My recent blog post about Saunders can be read here.

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