In a crackling eulogy to David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith writes:
He can’t be read and understood and enjoyed at that speed any more than I can get the hang of the Goldberg Variations over a weekend. His reader needs to think of herself as a musician, spreading the sheet music – the gift of the work – over the music stand, electing to play. First there is practise, then competency at the instrument, then spending time with the sheet music, then playing it over and over.
In Changing my Mind Zadie Smith has compiled her own variations, subdivided into five sections – ‘Reading’, ‘Being’, ‘Seeing’, ‘Feeling’ and ‘Remembering’. The essays merit careful reading. They range from personal recollections of family to insightful considerations of writers, actors and English comedy. The David Foster Wallace and Kafka essays are outstanding pieces of criticism. All the variations are engrossing to read.
Smith is a thoughtful writer, painstakingly challenging her own style. She is also a contemplative and intelligent reader.
Recently included in a series of articles entitled ‘Ten rules for writing fiction‘, Smith offered:
- 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.