Who Is Your Teacher? (3) Zadie Smith: Revelation & Honesty

I recalled reading a story you can relate to if you had ever had close experience with news of terrorism or war hostages. It was written by a woman called Zadie Smith. 

Before then, I had never heard anything about a “universal story.” I didn’t think a story could fit anywhere and anytime. No main character is determined. It’s a general story. If you tweak a few things, you can change it to anyone’s story. That was strange.

The title of the story was Two Men Arrive In A village. It is the story of two men, literally, arriving in a village and doing however they please. They are probably from a more powerful enemy. They go to a village they’ve conquered, take food and young girls for pleasure, and slice a boy’s head off his neck. 

We will come back to the topic of the universal story later. But, first, let’s discuss what Zadie can teach you about creativity, writing, and life. 

Who is Zadie Smith? 

Zadie Smith is the author of White Teeth, a book that won the Guardian’s first book award. Her story covers race, being an immigrant, mixed race, culture, child development, and parenting. 

I have read one of her books, White Teeth. Her other books include Swing Time and her collection of essays, changing my mind. 

Let’s talk about a few things she can teach you about writing, creativity, and life. 

Zadie Smith’s Writing Style 

I have read White Teeth (Zadie Smith’s famous work), and the style is heavily thematic, covering many topics from race to childhood to marriage to friendship to religion to living as a foreigner in another country.

These days, it feels to me like you make a devil’s pact when you walk into this country. You hand over your passport at the check-in, you get stamped, you want to make a little money, get yourself started… but you mean to go back! Who would want to stay? Cold, wet, miserable; terrible food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Just tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained.” 

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

It’s literary fiction. Yeah, it’s not one of those books you pick for mere entertainment. You buy this one to be entertained and educated about all of the important topics of the central characters.

Writing Lessons from Zadie Smith

Honesty and revelation 

Two of the most important things you include in your writing are honesty and revelation. When you are honest, you are likely to sound offensive to some people (this is not the same as blatantly offensive writing). Honesty is truth, a universal truth. Yes, people find the truth offensive. 

“It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, “Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.” Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way?” 

This is one of Zadie Smith’s quotes. Is it offensive? It depends on who you ask. 

On the other hand, Revelation is a personal truth that a character won’t share in public, something special or weird. In an essay, this is the truth but a bit personal — so, a revelation. 

Revelation happens in The One Who Walks Away from Omelas when we read about the boy tortured in the underground building.

You can listen to Zadie Smith talks about it in her podcast. 

  • Leaving space between writing and editing 

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second—put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year or more is ideal—but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer.

Zadie Smith, the Crafty Feeling

Yes, I have no addition to the above quote other than it when you leave the work for a long time, you will come back like a stranger. It will look a bit unfamiliar, and you will have fresh insight that will make editing much better. 

  • When you choose to be a writer, you shouldn’t see being alone as a problem.

Most creative writing works need that space and alone time to brood about topics. Virginia understood this point perfectly when she wrote A Room Of One’s Own. It’s a hard choice, but you won’t have time to write quality stories if you can’t sit quietly for hours alone.

These ideas also work in improving creativity. Leaving a creative project after your first attempt can help you handle it better. 

The idea of universal storytelling

A universal story? What’s that?

After reading the story, I read some of Zadie Smith’s interviews, where she explained the idea. She wrote it after being inspired by The One Who Walks Away From Omelas — another Universal story. 

I tried writing such stories again and again, but I ended up doing a terrible job. So the first attempt was The Lady From Wasinmi and the second was Everything You Need To Know About A Male Dog.

The point of such stories is to make them true and so universal in their styles. The story will still be true and interesting if you change the setting, time, and characters. Every story has this element in them, but some are just more profound and more truthful. 

The story of a man fighting in the world war for France is not as universal as the story of a boy roaming the streets of London for food and having to join a cult to survive. They both have the elements of being universal, but one is more practical anywhere in the world. 

Some cities have not experienced wars, but countless have seen a boy become a gangster from being left cold in the world.

If you still struggle to get it, try reading The One Who Walks Away From Omelas or Two Men Arrive In A Village. Then, follow some exercises in my blog post on how to write a novel.  

For anyone who wants to read her work further, I will recommend White Teeth. Her other books are Swing Time, On Beauty, and The Autograph Man, but I have not read these ones. 

I have some recommendations if you want to grab some of her works online and read them for free. 

Zadie Smith Essays

Zadie Smith’s short stories 

This type of post is regular on the blog. I usually write about a creative person, often a (fiction) writer, who has been honored for their work. I detailed lessons and tips on writing, creativity, and other areas of life. You can find previous episodes here.

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