Zadie Smith on Writing and Writers

Thursday I was unable to write a blog entry so I’m going to post one today. I’ll focus on the writing life again and back track in the coming week to other topics.

Zadie Smith is famous for writing the first novel White Teeth. While I did not read that novel I read 50 pages of her novel The Autograph Man. The book bored me and I didn’t find it to be exceptional so I quit reading it. Also: the main character had no redeeming features that would’ve allowed me to like him even though he was repulsive in his behavior.

Though this has been my experience I can say that Zadie Smith redeems herself by talking about the craft of writing on the Internet and by giving readers her 10 rules of writing. She defines writers as Macro Planners or Micro Managers.

I’m in the macro planner camp. Yet more than this I can see the scenes of novels in my head like I’m a director filming a movie. I can visualize the action of a novel in my head clear as real events.

It also helps to cut out photos from magazines that can give you a visual cue as to how a character looks or what a room looks like or of other images in a book.

I have also gone to bed at night and in my sleep I’ve dreamed of the plots of novels. Ideas for plots of novels have come to me in my sleep. Like any macro manager I don’t write a book from beginning to middle to end: I write the scenes that resonate with me at that particular moment.

I also find that dialogue pops into my head at random moments during the day or night, on weekdays or on the weekend.

To be fair I most likely have to read White Teeth or NW to see if I can adjust my view of Zadie Smith’s writing.

Read Zadie Smith’s views on two types of writers.  Her style of crafting a novel might be different. Each style is rightfully useful on its own. One style is not any better than another.

Last of the Independents

In the 1980s disc jockeys played the music of bands signed to indie record labels instead of major record labels.

I liken this to self-publishing a book circa 2015 today. Major publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on a great work of literature so they routinely turn down books they think won’t make millions of dollars for the house. James Patterson and other writers of so-called formula fiction do get book contracts with Random House and other publishers.

I say: take a chance on the last of the independents. Be not afraid to read a self-published book that is well-written not cobbled together with poor grammar and dangling sentences or run-on streams of paragraphs.

My other two books are self-help books I hope to publish within five years. I have a fourth non-fiction book I’d like to bring out too.

Today: mainstream publishers aren’t willing to take a chance on first-time authors. I urge readers of books to take this chance on first-time authors.

I’m most taken by Kim Gordon’s traditionally published memoir, Girl in a Band, because she limned the downtown New York City music scene that paralleled my own stint as a disc jockey on the FM radio.

It comes down to making beautiful music on your own. Self-publishing a book is like producing an album with an indie record label.

Most people would rather read a book Nicole Richie or Kim Kardashian wrote.

I say: give your hard-earned money to ordinary writers not celebrities who make millions just by rolling out of bed.

The whole indie do-it-yourself ethic is alive and well and thriving.

Why not join in?

Write Where You Are

I recommend plotting in chronological order the key events of your life.

Take the event that resonates with you the most and start writing about that time in your life.

The goal is to have 50 pages of writing. I recommend joining a writing workshop that is comprised of supportive, knowledgeable, and educated individuals from diverse walks of life.

The first memoir workshop I joined in 2001 was for Italian American writers. The next workshop I joined had four women and was at first lead by a published fiction writer and playwright. Then we met on our own at each others’ houses.

I was not afraid to tell my story to unknown strangers in 2001 and then again with the women. At some point, you’ll have to get feedback for your writing. You can’t rely solely on your own eye or ear.

There is no formula for writing memoir. I told my story in chronological order and tightly edited it to include only certain scenes that followed one into the other in a cohesive, linear narrative.

You can’t bridle up what you have to say when you first start. It might take two, three, or more rounds of editing to polish and perfect your story.

So write where you are. Keeping going. Listen to other people’s feedback with an open mind.
You want to publish only the best possible version of your story. Regardless of whether you get an editor to buy your book, or you decide to self-publish, you have to bring out a great, engaging story.

I will talk more in the coming blog entries about how to see your life with new eyes to uplift your narrative. Or as one woman in the first workshop told another woman, “Be Irish” even though she wasn’t from Ireland. You have to fully become the character whose life you’re crafting.

Sometimes this will be unsettling. You’ll have to go to the root of the narrative and pull up the weeds so that the gorgeous flowers show through. What you write might be about something sad, about a horror, yet there should always be something elegant and beautiful about it. (That’s what I think.)

MFA: Boon Or Boondoggle?

From time to time I will talk about the writing life in a category of blog entries under the title the writing life.

It might interest readers who have the urge to tell their story or write a book.

I recently read in the book Happiness, a collection of essays taken from the critical literary journal n+1, a chapter by Keith Gessen, a guy who was a penniless writer forced to teach fiction at a college. He does have an MFA, and sold a book for a six-figure advance (advances are always against future royalties.) Yet for most of his writerly life, he existed on $15K to $20K in yearly income.

This will be the first writing myth I bust: that a traditional avenue for a writing career is the only one a would-be writer should aspire to.

First: I’m not a fan of most MFA fiction (or fiction for that matter), so I’m biased against having a job in an “ivory tower” academic institution where you teach writing to students. I read a fine column in Poets & Writers about how real-life experience is vital to have as a writer, instead of going the paper-mill route.

I make an exception: certain MFA writers are good–like Danzy Senna. And it’s a matter of preference, because Heidi Julavits is a famous MFA-writer, and I found nothing spectacular about her first book, The Mineral Palace. (I read it when it first came out.)

She was on a panel discussion I attended titled: “MFA: Boon or Boondoggle” easily over 10 years ago.

The myth of having to write full-time, the myth of most writers being able to earn a livable income solely from writing, is just that: a myth.

The wind-up:

To get an MFA, you have to think of your R.O.I., or return on investment: if you’ll recoup the expensive tuition by getting a book deal with a decent advance.

I will return on Thursday with a more hopeful scenario to combat this common dilemma.