“Cleveland has always been incredibly nice to me,” novelist Zadie Smith said as she took the podium at Case Western Reserve University. Her last visit to Northeast Ohio was back in 2006, when she was on hand to accept the Anisfield-Wolf prize for fiction for her third novel, On Beauty.
This year, Smith was the first author to appear at Writers Center Stage, a literary series sponsored by the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Case Western Reserve University. Clad in a tan blazer and jeans, Smith began her talk, entitled, “Why Write? Creativity and Refusal.” The title borrows from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write.”
Smith, 38, told the audience that she appreciates the wisdom that comes with experience. “I much prefer writing at this age than when I was 24,” she said. Her debut novel, White Teeth, was published when she was 23.
Smith’s talk focused on the overwhelming trend of writers striving to become megabrands and conflating popularity with significance. “Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product,” Smith said. “To my mind, a true ‘creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want.”
Some of the best creative writing can be found in hip-hop, Smith says, but now, looking at artists like Kanye West and the L.A. rap collective Odd Future, rap music has become less about the message and more about the “branding opportunities.”
Smith, who teaches creative writing at New York University, tells her students that the reality of the publishing industry has changed. “I have to ask them sometimes, ‘Why do you think all the writers you admire are teaching in this building?’ A day job is a day job and historically writers have always had one,” Smith said, adding that her father had aspirations of becoming a photographer. Instead, for years he held a job folding and distributing pieces of direct mail “that you toss in the rubbish bin as soon as you get them.”
Earlier in the day, Smith spoke with a more intimate audience of university faculty and students for a free-flowing session about the writing process. “My experience with writing is writing sentences,” she said plainly. “What I’m thinking of is different kinds of sentences. It’s very hard for a writer to fool themselves about what they’re doing.”
Smith recently attended the PEN awards in New York where she presented the Lifetime Achievement prize to Louise Erdrich, a 2009 Anisfield-Wolf winner. What struck her, she said, was how many male winners mentioned their children as they accepted their awards. “Fathers are more involved now than they’ve ever been in the course of human history,” she said. “Dickens had 10 children. Tolstoy had 13. But they weren’t helping to raise them. This shift is going to change how we write, what we produce.”
Her writing process is informed by the realities of her life. A mother of two small children, she commits five hours a day to write at the library, and she brings her lunch with her to avoid wasting time. “Some writers say they won’t stop for the day until they’ve written 5,000 words,” she said. “But I couldn’t do that. It would be a cycle of failure.”
Instead, Smith said she fights the profound anxiety of a writer’s life and uses it to her advantage. “I wrote an essay that will be published soon about the advertisement that I can see from my apartment, because I literally never leave the house,” she said. “Some writers can go to Africa, traveling all over the world. But you have to do what you can with what you have and make the most of it.”