Zadie Smith @ Ucalgary (February 2016: A Review)

Disclaimer: I have a MASSIVE crush on Zadie Smith.

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In light of reading Embassy of Cambodia for my globalization and literature class, I thought I would finally post about my Zadie experience in February. It was a perfect week; Zadie complimented my bag and then I flew to Mexico and laid on the beach reading White Teeth.

*This was originally written as an assignment for my honours degree. 

“Why write? Creativity and Refusal” by Zadie Smith, Calgary Visiting Distinguished Writers Program, MacEwan Hall February 11, 2016

In this post, I will discuss both Zadie Smith’s large talk titled above, as well as her masterclass for creative writing students on the same day. I will also draw from Nick Thran’s discussion of her books NW and Occasional Essays. Smith’s discussion, though it had a central question, was a bit different from a research talk, unless researching one’s own life is valid (I think it is!) Smith discussed at length the value of creativity and our modern interpretations of it. She invoked the suspicion the Elizabethans had towards creativity when confronted with the 21st century idea of “the Creative.” Smith discussed what creative means in its constant usage and what it means to writing. Creative writing is undeniably a field of work, but the word “creative,” she said, is most often used to describe “a particularly ingenious way of selling something.” She then posed the extremely important question that I think every young “creative” needs to address full-on: “Is it creative writing or this idea we have of a creative lifestyle that is the draw?”

Smith’s central argument in her lecture is that “at the heart of creativity lies a refusal; discomfort, distaste, confusion, shock, and anger.” True creativity is something new, and “newness” “does not slip into the world easily.” Furthermore, creativity “must not be rooted in the need for approval.” Zadie Smith takes an approach to writing that is refreshing; she is frank about the reality of writing and she does not fall into idealism when discussing her life as a writer. She discusses activism and writing and how at once writing can be a form of activism, but for the most part the “arts are dominated by hegemonic and ideological structures; we like to think the arts change things, but they often reinforce the status quo.” She talks about the “deep structures” of oppression that exist in the arts, where the “black artist gives authenticity to the white artist.” Smith does not shy from the political in lectures, just as she does not shy from it in her writing. She quotes Kanye West and mentions Beyoncé’s new song, “Formation.” Smith is topical, engaging, and holds a deep wisdom. For a writer, Zadie Smith is young, and though she shows a deep appreciation for those writers that came before her, she does not fall prey to past ideals of starving artistry. To me, she IS the ideal. A working writer, mother, wife, and educator.

Smith approaches modern writing culture with an eye of skepticism; one that those of us pursuing the craft too often forget. Smith pokes fun at the way writing is represented now; “It used to be called ‘selling out’ but now it’s called ‘consolidating your brand.’” Smith warns against the push to think of yourself as a product, and to write away from the branding and stray from the worlds of marketing and publishing while you write. Smith explores what is the crux of her lecture; what is the point of writing? Why do we write? Aside from the need to earn a living, she lists reasons outlined by George Orwell and presents two as a solid foundation for a life of writing: Historical Impulse and Political Purpose. This is not to say, however, that aesthetic enthusiasm for writing is wrong, but that there has to be more to motivations that it. Smith discusses the “special snowflake syndrome” millennials seem to be infected with, and the “desire for fame through self-actualization.” “Everyone identifies as a unique creator of their own life,” and Smith again emphasizes the detriment of sheer egoism in writing. But why do we write, if not to make money or to make ourselves feel good? “A desire to see things as they are” is Zadie Smith’s main reason that we write. Good writing is like an induction to the “reality-based community,” and a license to be both skeptical and knowledgeable. She iterates that reading is more important than writing, and the importance to “read between the lines AND read the actual lines. “A writer has to work very hard to counter the false realities” presented to us in the form of reality TV and unreliable web sources. A writer “has a duty to complicate narratives to render people and the world as completely and undeniably complex and intricate as they are.

Smith discusses the limits of the word “creativity” explaining that Steve Jobs’ brand of creativity is incredibly different than Kafka’s. One should “never really get used to creativity in art,” whereas technological creativity “exists to please people” “To think differently, refusal must exist.” Smith discusses the difficulties of re-reading: “Fighting Nostalgia can be a full-time job, unsentimentality is a passion for the new. Nostalgic culture keeps all those questioning artists quiet and becomes passive consumerism.” Smith claims that we have developed a “Warholian seamlessness of art and consumerism.”

While the meaning of writing and creativity shifts, and continues to do so, it remains one of the most flexible art forms; “writing is free of constraint, including financial.” More than anything, it “allows you to demonstrate your capacity to manipulate words. Writers are not prophets or priests, they are just good at making sentences.” Zadie Smith talks about a “new humility needed for writers,” which I believe was the greatest take away from the lecture. Writers need to work at the sentence level, not the “I’m the next Beyoncé” level. She emphasizes how important it is to set a good foundation of writing from the level of individual sentences before ideas, and this is something that I think needs to be emphasized in creative writing. She concludes her lecture by saying “What if the most creative thing we can do right now is refuse?”

In her masterclass, Smith echoed many of the things she touched on in her lecture. Smith emphasized reading, sentence structure, and humility. She began her question and answer period with a quote from Ru Paul” You’re born naked but the rest is drag” to emphasize the idea of writing as drag and writing character and dialogue as “convincingly fake empathy. “Smith focused on the reality of writing, especially the reality of writing as a woman with children. She discusses writing whenever she has time; in the back of a car, at breakfast, and not falling into the idea that writers block exists; it doesn’t. Smith doesn’t see personal identity as freedom, which is interesting and counterintuitive to what we are fed by the internet daily. This is something I intensely agree with and her take on motherhood and writing is certainly important.

Out of the lecture, the thing I found the most difficult was the screen- the lecture hall was large and Smith had PowerPoint slides. The screen would alternate between her slides and a video feed of her; it would have been much more effective if there had been 2 screens.

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