Zadie Smith Dishes Advice, Dispels Myths at MFA

What is a writer, and why should anyone write? Novelist and essayist Zadie Smith addressed these questions at a lecture on January 24 at the Museum of Fine Arts. In front of a packed lecture hall, Smith discussed the complicated figure of the “creative writer”viewed in academia, she joked, as a harmless idiot savant, and yet also romanticized with a certain kind of awe.

Smith had come to speak as part of the MFA’s annual Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Celebrity Lecture series, the lineup of which this season boasts such well-known guest lecturers as the mother-daughter pair of artist Laurie Simmons and filmmaker and HBO series “Girls” creator Lena Dunham, as well as acclaimed painter Kehinde Wiley.

Smith, who prides herself on defying convention, is known for wearing turbans; true to form, she was sporting a pink one at the event. Even the style of her presentation defied trends; rather than follow what Smith termed the fashion in literary lectures of giving off-the-cuff ruminations, Smith gave a more traditional talk. “Writing is the attempt to own an identity,” she said. “[Its main pleasure is] the secret of transformation [and] of living many lives in one. You can be all the parts of you [that] you can’t express in normative existence,” she said. Her description seemed hardly surprising given the preoccupations of her work. Beginning with her celebrated debut novel “White Teeth,” which concerns the immigrant experience of mediating one’s heritage with one’s new culture, Smith has attempted nuanced explorations of what it is to own an identity and to navigate the influence of histories over which one may have little control.

Smith was open about admitting that she does not have all the answers. When facing a blank page, she said, it is alright to admit,“I am feeling a bit pointless and absurd.” The task of a writer is difficult and largely unglamorous, she said. In a society increasingly defined by its capacity to consume, Smith says, writing has the appeal of freedom because it is a form of self-expression not tied to a credit card.

She was also honest about the difficulty of writing. “Despite the cacophony of careless writing we read every day, [one should write] without romantic self-pity or stylized despair,” Smith said. She advised aspiring writers to follow a mantra: “I am writing to make this sentence as good as possible.” When asked by an attendee how to convey to young students the importance of reading widely, she responded that reading keeps the aspiring writer from mistakenly believing his or her work to be completely new.

These comments were reminiscent of advice Smith has given before. In 2010, British newspaper The Guardian asked noted writers for their “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction,” and Smith’s tenth piece of advice was, “Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied.”

Despite acknowledging that the process of writing can be thankless and arduous, Smith continues to be passionate about writing. In a 2013 interview with The Rumpus, an online literary magazine, Smith said, “You can’t write thoughtlessly[,]that’s the problem with writing. You have to think about the damn thing all the time. I think that’s why it’s sometimes difficult. But rewarding, right? It’s rewarding.” Smith compared the writer at work on a story to a carpenter at work on a piece of furniture: No matter how well it is made, Smith says, “You have to accept that you are creating a surplus in demand and [may be] making a chair that nobody wants.”

Writing may be challenging, but it is necessary, Smith suggests. For her it serves its purpose and allows her to investigate complex societal themes. We might not need writing if we could be all the different people we wanted to be all the time.

—Staff Writer Yen H. Pham can be reached at yenpham@college.harvard.edu.

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