Zadie Smith: Revelation, Honesty & The Beauty of Universal Storytelling

I recalled reading a story, and it’s so real that you can relate to it if you have ever had close experience with news of terrorism or war hostages. The said story 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 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 whatever they please. They are probably from a more powerful enemy. They go to a village (which they’ve conquered) to take food and young girls for pleasure. Before they leave, they 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 a British Novelist and essay writer. She is the author of White Teeth, which won the Guardian’s first book award. Her book, On Beauty, won the Orange Book Award. Her stories cover race, being an immigrant, mixed race, culture, child development, and parenting.

Zadie is the daughter of an English father and a Jamaican mother.

I have read one of her books, White Teeth. Her other books include Swing Time and her essay collection, 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 entertainment. You buy this one to be entertained and educated about all of the important topics of the central characters.

The Idea of Universal Storytelling

A universal story? What’s that?

After reading Two Men Arrived In A Village, I read some of Zadie Smith’s interviews about the story. She explained the concept of universal storytelling. She was inspired by The One Who Walks Away From Omelas — another Universal story. 

The point of such stories is to make them true and 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, but some are more universal than others. 

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 gang to survive. THIS KIND OF THING HAPPENS EVERYWHERE. Although both have the elements of being universal, one is more likely to fit 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, read 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 other works, I will recommend White Teeth. Her other books include 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. 

Writing Lessons from Zadie Smith

These are the things you can learn from the author:

Honesty and Revelation

Two of the most important things you include in your writing are truth 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 happens when a character won’t share something special or weird in public.

If you are writing a personal essay, this could be a bit personal. 

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

You can listen to Zadie Smith talk about it in this podcast

Leaving Time 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 that when you leave 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. 

The Value of Alone Time

When you choose to be a writer, being alone becomes normal.

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. 

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.