Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is one of the few writers whose writing about writing I find as interesting as her fiction. And in one of the more personal essays in this book, she reveals that her father was the model for Archie, the central figure of her first novel, White Teeth. Smith famously published White Teeth when she was 24 and has since tried to distance herself from it--calling it something like a ginger-haired child tap-dancing manically. But I'm a big fan--then again I wouldn't mind seeing a ginger-haired child tap-dancing manically either. Now I wonder if she has distanced herself from the novel because it is partly borrowed from her father. It had never occurred to me that White Teeth was at all autobiographical, perhaps because it's so over-the-top; and honestly, I find it a relief to discover it has such true-to-life seeds. That makes the achievement seem less daunting--that this brilliant insanity was not entirely invented out of nothing.

Also included in this collection is an essay I like quite a lot, "That Crafty Feeling," about how when you're writing a novel suddenly everything that you come across seems to fit into your novel. Words pop into your life, theories, people...and they all seem to slide right into the novel. I don't so much believe in this as deliberately practice it. I don't believe the arrival of these notions is fate, but that they are tools I can use. I like the fun and challenge and randomness of seeing if I can fit the things that fall into my life into the thing I'm working on at the moment (because this is often a number of things perhaps it's not such a tough challenge). There's something about allowing the layered and coincidental nature of life into fiction that I think makes it feel more real--more layered itself. It also (I hope) breaks up my tendency to make everything in my fiction fit too neatly (or as Russell Banks once told me, the tendency to keep my hands too tight on the steering wheel) (Toni Morrison once almost hit me with her car in the university parking lot when I was an undergrad, so maybe Banks wasn't speaking metaphorically. Come to think of it in the same conversation he told me how as a teenager he once ran away from home in a stolen car. I'm not sure exactly what he was advising there.) (But I loved him.) (Still do.). Then again, maybe this practice is just more evidence of my need to organize everything; this time by fitting it into fiction. Either way, it makes writing a bit more of a game, and that appeals.

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