December 16, 2009
JR: Recently at The Millions, Josh Ferris talked about Changing My Mind, a collection of essays from Zadie Smith, and I realized the galley was still sitting on my desk. I randomly picked one essay to read, and was I surprised that the essay was written for me. Warning: On Beauty, for my money, is one of the finest books of the last 100 years, not even up for debate.
Sure, it wasn’t really written for me, but for an audience of students at Columbia, as this is a speech she’d once given. She talks about the craft of writing a novel, and she sets down a simple set of rules for writing, at least how she writes. Talking about past tense, first person, and how she always comes back to third person past tense, but it takes her forever to get there. How there are micro and macro writers, (read it, and find out which one you are) some start in the middle and other start at the beginning, she’s a first sentence gal, and works to the end, but she doesn’t know the end until she gets there. Then the essay ripples out a little more and talks about the first twenty pages, how writers slave over those pages, for months, even years, and once you get that in order, find the voice, she can write the rest in five months.
It’s hard for me not to vomit this entire essay out onto the keyboard right now; you really have to stop what you’re doing and read the book. Smith talks about leaving finished novels in the drawer after you’ve written them, because you are either a writer or a reader of your own work, you can’t do both at the same time. She finally reveals what it’s like to re-read her own novels years after they’ve been published, and it’s an eye opening experience.