At a time when “no human realm is unironized or not belittled”, it strange that the label ‘writer’ still inspires awe. These are the words of Zadie Smith at a Museum of Fine Arts lecture titled “Why Write?”
Zadie Smith fills an entire auditorium with her presence, even though she jokes that she is British and, therefore, “does not speak off the cuff.” I want to have a glass of wine with off-the-cuff Zadie Smith, but for now, I settle contently for scribbling everything she says and noticing the craftsmanship of her words. “Writers feel acutely,” she offers. “Writing can be an echo chamber of complaint. Writers forever feel neglected. They romanticize other eras. Epoch envy.” I was bred to disdain generalizations; any sentence that begins with “women all…” or “humans…” or “Greeks…” is met with my raised eyebrows. And yet, I can hear her generalize about writers and their feelings and nod in submissive agreement, compelled by assonance and rhythm and internal rhyme.
She examines various explanations for our attachment to writing.
“Write because you can’t help it.”
Write out of “an Olympian tautology: because I am a writer.”
“Write because you desire to see things as they really are.”
“Write as an antidote to pointlessness, because you care about the small matter of sentences.”
“Write because writing looks like freedom. Because it is a kind of freedom.”
She weaves others’ words into her discourse on writing, from those of Alexander Pope to James Wood to David Foster Wallace to Nabokov to Orwell. I realize that Zadie Smith likes to place her narrative in the company of others; some of her writing, especially in Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays is so full of block quotes and allusions that it is hard to discern where the literary criticism ends and her own creation begins. Perhaps, for Smith, writing cannot exist in isolation; perhaps, like history, it requires context.
When she ends her remarks, I start to breathe again, noticing that her delivery inspires the kind of awe she thought may be obsolete in an irony-laden world. I expect her to walk offstage; instead, she sits on a stool, drinks water, and asks if anyone has any questions. She re-wears humanity. Someone asks her if she has any writing rituals, and she laughs gently.
“My students fetishize a creative life,” she says, and I picture being Zadie Smith’s student. “To me, it’s just what you put on the page. The rest is blah.” She notes that she does not have a talisman, “just a cheap IKEA table facing the wall.” And, “if it’s a ritual, I always write in Garamond.”
Zadie Smith may dismiss the rituals of writing as a type of showmanship, but I – a fellow Garamond-lover – have always been attached to ritual and calligraphy alike. I sound my writing out: I whisper every word as I type. This is why, regardless of whether I am writing an academic paper on sexual violence in war zones or a personal essay on nostalgia, I cannot write in a library. I wear my writing on my face. I squint, bite my lip and inner cheek, run my tongue over my front teeth, wear the effort. I speak the words out. Writing sounds like something to me, and only by whispering it do I know if it feels and reads right.
I write in multiple tabs. As an avid reader, and an English as a Second Language speaker, there are many words I have met that have a different meaning in real life than that etched in my head. I like the unusual combinations, the adjective that you wouldn’t typically seat next to a particular noun. And so, in the multiple tabs, I google, just to check. Does ‘ferociously’ have to have cruel connotations or can it also mean ‘fiercely, vigorously?’ Is it ‘different from’ or ‘different than’? I love the unusual and unused pairings of words, but I need to know what they usually mean, how they are meant to be used.
I write sentence by sentence. Each of them is important to me. I cannot wrap my mind around a full paragraph or a whole essay; my ideas are usually born out of a sentence or a phrase, out of the smallest scale in which words can play with each other. In the many notebooks that have traveled with me, I jot down these kernels of essays-to-be, hoping to revisit them later and make a story out of them. Many are ‘just’ scribbles, some are unfinished drafts, few become full-fledged essays. I do not lament the unfinished drafts, and rarely do I return to them. I know which the stories are that I long to tell, and I’m patient and peaceful with the stories that get lodged somewhere between the vocal chords and the keyboard.
My writing sometimes feels like chanting, full of repetition and rhythmical run-ons. Precision is important to me and, in that sense, I embrace Zadie Smith’s treatment of writing as a craft. And yet, in non-academic writing, I also embrace what Microsoft Word would tell me is a fragment worthy of a squiggly green line underneath it. I write in hyphens and commas, in mirrored sentence structures and recurring words. I write in the way life unfolds: in motifs, patterns, in dances of regularity and surprise interruptions.
There is no sense of sequencing to my writing. Until it is done, I cannot eat, sleep, or go on living. I will squint and whisper words and type until it is all on the page. I write in gross spurts, in chunks of time uninterrupted and unpunctuated by anything but words. When the time comes to edit, I look for the errant or excessive commas, the bit of repetition that lingers from the deliberate towards the excessive. I cut words, but never whole paragraphs. Wordiness never quite bothers me, as long as I feel the need for all of them. I will edit, word by word, until it all feels like me, until I can picture a reader who knows me well hearing my voice utter the words he is seeing.
There is a part of me that tries to edit out the Eternal Sunshine, the misplaced optimism. It used to be that I could not tell a story without placing a positive spin on it in the end, as though I could not live with conflict without catharsis, sadness without closure, without that “crack in everything that lets the light in,” as Leonard Cohen would put it. In that sense, I write in the same way that I live. When the words feel too rosy, the adjectives too outsized, I cut. I look for the simpler, truer ones. And if they, too, are sunny, I make my peace with the sunniness. Sometimes there is sunniness brimming from places that demand their place in the light.