Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith (Photo by Dominique Nabokob)

I should have learned my lesson. Just over a month ago, when Michael Chabon visited the Hennepin County Central Library as part of Talk of the Stacks, so many enthusiastic readers turned out that the overflow room overflowed. I knew the turnout wouldn’t be any less impressive for Zadie Smith, who stopped by the University Of Minnesota’s Coffman Memorial Union Theater on Tuesday, October 23, 2012. Yet, I didn’t arrive until ten minutes before the reading was scheduled to begin.

I must enjoy it. I must enjoy witnessing a packed room, every seat occupied, to come hear an author speak about his or her work. I must enjoy watching latecomers snuggle up with each other on the floor, grown women and men sitting cross-legged in the aisles to watch as, for more than an hour, a young British novelist stands in a sweltering auditorium to answer the question that novelists have been asking for three centuries now: why write?

A packed house at UMN’s Coffman Union Theater. That speck on the left is Zadie Smith.

Rather than reading from her new novel NW (Penguin Press, September 2012), Smith read an as-yet unpublished lecture that attempts to answer this titular question, as well as it’s fraternal twin: what does it mean to be a writer? The lecture was a wry, compelling tour of writers’ senses of identity. She explored a variety of writerly topics, such as whether or not it is harder to be a writer today than it once was. What with the internet, the economy, and fill-in-the-blank hardship unique to our time. Her answer to this question was that, by all appearances, it has never been easy to be a writer, and that every writer in each epoch has always practiced a revisionist hindsight on the periods that preceded them.

Calling on quotations from Alexander Pope, Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and George Orwell, Smith honed in on her eventual thesis: you write because you care about writing. Of these writers, she seemed to hold Orwell’s dictum in the highest esteem. Poorly quoted (on my part), Smith said Orwell wrote that “each writer has four great motives for writing, and each writer has each of these motives in differing degrees. They are 1) Sheer Egoism: to seem clever, to be talked about, 2) Aesthetic Beautyism: to create something stylistically pleasant, 3) Historical Impulse: the desire to see things as they are, and 4) Political Purpose: to push the world in a certain direction. Her only caveat to this formula was that in Orwell’s assessment of writers’ Sheer Egoism, he set them apart from other contributors to society. Smith argued that “in this day and age, everyone aspires to live their own lives.  The desire for fame and self-actualization is ubiquitous. Writers are no longer the exception.”

The effect of reading an essay titled “Why Write?” is, by design, that the audience turn this question inward and attempt to find the answer that resonates personally. As Smith noted early in the lecture, “Most of you in the audience identify with this word ‘writer,’ much more than you do with ‘reader.’ For many of you, that’s why you’re here.” I don’t exclude myself from this characterization, and I don’t think I was alone in feeling affirmed by Smith’s talk. Nor was there a more reassuring moment when, during the Q&A, a woman asked when, if ever, Zadie Smith had a moment when she realized “I’m a writer.”

“When White Teeth was published, when they sent me my copies of the book, my husband likes to remind me, that was a big moment.  I was so young and I hadn’t sought it, all of that seeking an agent stuff; it was something that was just happening to me. But seeing those books was a big moment. In terms of sitting down to write, though, it’s not there. When I sit down to write, I’m still scared.”

Smith’s final answer for why we write turned out to be a devotion to craft: “You write because you care about the sentence,” but I found more resonance with her admission of fear. I love me a crafty sentence, but there is an unparalleled satisfaction in facing a fear, in overcoming a challenge that you know will only resume its form before you, in grappling with an evincible foe. Because writing is a struggle, and to struggle is to live, and to live is the thing.

–RHM

Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event?  Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the left and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar to be at the next LitSeen.org attended event. See you around!

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