This is an author, I’m afraid, who’s still on my “to read” list rather than my “already read” list (much like Gaiman and Miéville previously). Still, Zadie Smith wasn’t elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature for no reason, I’m sure.
To start, let’s take a look at this video interview Smith did with Paul Holdengräber, live at the New York Public Library, which I found here on the NYPL website with a bunch of other interesting interviews of authors.
To quote the video about writing and belief:
“Each novel I’ve written, any novel anyone writes, it’s not that you sit down saying ‘I believe this, and now I will write this,” but by the nature of your sentences, just by the things that you emphasize or that you don’t emphasize, you’re constantly expressing a belief about the way you think the world is, about the things that you think are important, and those things change. They do change. And the form of the novel changes as well. A very simple example is in a lot of my fiction I’ve delved very deeply into people’s heads, into their consciousness and tried to take out every detail, and the older I get and the more that I meet people and realize I don’t know them. My own husband is a stranger to me, really, fundamentally at the end you don’t know these people. That should be reflected in what you write, that total knowledge is impossible.”
Which, I think, echoes Toni Morrison’s earlier advice about writing what you know. Mainly, “You don’t know nothing.”
- When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
- When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
- 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.
- 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.
- Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
- Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won’t make your writing any better than it is.
- Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.
- Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.
- Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
- Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.