On Beauty

Zadie SmithRecently I went with a friend to hear Zadie Smith speak at Dartmouth. Smith is the author of wonderful contemporary novels, including On Beauty, which I read several years ago and loved. It’s been quite a while since I’ve listened in person to a writer whose work I admire as much as Smith’s and though I was eager to go, I wasn’t sure how I’d react. I often find academic settings a bit rarefied for my taste and the sphere of literary award winners is one that’s always been beyond my reach. Over the years some of the allure of that sphere has diminished and I’ve become more comfortable with my own literary limitations, (though I still want to be the best writer I can, to shape the sort of novels that I love to read).

So it was a pleasant surprise to hear Smith’s unpretentious and candid comments, to watch her flick away cherished academic theories and abstractions about the writing process and just speak directly from her own experience — and her heart.

A lot of what she said rang bells for me:

She mentioned that she had been an obsessive reader in her childhood that she, like me and other writers, had created “a supplementary life made out of words.” She spoke of her aversion to viewing creative writing as self-expression and said that for her writing fiction is closer to copying something than expressing herself. “So much is stolen and reshaped,” she said and she wasn’t talking about plagiarism but about emulating other writers’ works.

She said that she never knows where she’s going when she writes fiction, that she needs a lot of time and emotional space around creating fiction. Time to wonder and “time to moan.”

When she was asked how she’d revise one of her earlier novels if she had a chance, she demurred, saying “once I’ve written a thing it’s over for me.” She doesn’t go back and rehash old work or feel an interest in rewriting it.

And then she was asked what sorts of things fire her imagination, and make her want to write. “I’m drawn to beauty,” she said. “If it’s beautiful, I’m interested.”

I came away feeling inspired and affirmed, eager to read more of Zadie Smith’s work. For I, too, am mostly drawn to beauty.