Thursday, 24 December 2009

The madness of Christmas

I have been micromanaging today. In the attempt to be a true Noel Goddess, I have facilitated Gingerbread House squabbling, paper chain tearing-up frenzy, lunch fallout, glittery tree decoration fritzl, a military parade of getting dressed and doing teeth which has lasted until 2.15pm. Not necessarily in that order. In this I was not alone. There were 4 other adults to the 4 children: notionally an excellent ratio.

But this of course leads to the bumping into, multiple apologizing, different ways of doing it, whether or not to say that everything comes from Father Christmas politics, Husband the Chef trying to brine the turkey without having a discussion about it, the underfoot, the underslept and the underwear all over the house.

It is only mid-afternoon, yet I am locked up with the computer, desperately hoping to find some equanimity amongst the contradictions, the crowds and the pointlessness.

What a snob I am. It hasn't felt pointless this year at all. The whole of December has involved following the shining star of my own journey towards Applepie Motherhood, with all the mince pies, shopping for gifts from us to them, from them to us, from them to each other, in a precision set of vectors making a tetrahedron of present possibilities. I have (almost) cried at nativity plays, taken reels of photos, remembered the Advent calendar every day, even if I did land in the wrong pocket one morning from sheer lack of time before the thundering hooves descended. There has been mulled wine, carolling, puppet shows, the most overpriced panettone-from-Carluccio's in the universe, there has been charitable giving, and sparing a thought and some loose change. There have been parties -- none of which I attended, apart from the one for a three year old. I have sent hundreds of cards all over the world, I have remembered my 2 Godchildren, despite not being a Christian, and it has all felt rather lovely. It even snowed, enough for a snowball fight and lots of heady anxiety about whether the trip to Norfolk would work out.

I guess this year with Beauty aged 6 and a half and the Beast aged 3 and a half, I am counting my Christmas blessings. I reckon by next year Beauty may have guessed that Santa is me. On the way somewhere, after Sinterklaas on the 6th of December, she was chatting to me about the gift he had given her, which she really liked. Indicating left, I heard myself say, "Yes I thought you'd like that ."


"What did you say mummy?"

No beat at all: "Oh, as soon as I saw it I thought what a good present Sinterklaas had chosen for you,"


"Because it's funny mummy, but for a moment I thought you meant that YOU had got the present for me!"

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Working mothers: is it working?

December 2009 has proven the first major obstacle for two of my highest-flying female friends. One a Director of a major publishing company, and another a partner at a major accountancy and consulting firm, both of them had not only survived giving birth, one to 3 children, the other to 2, but had determinedly gone back to work, and stayed the course. One had managed to arrange her hours so that she went in at 8ish and left to pick up her children by 2.30, then worked at home in the evening. The other had a fantastic nanny arrangement. Both were up at nights, and never missed a school bake sale.

This Autumn, both were called into meetings, one an appraisal, the other to inform her about restructuring, and told that there wasn't room in the organization for them. Both have fought back, through unions, and both have or will walk away with payouts to prevent tribunals taking place to investigate constructive dismissal. Neither woman has ever received anything but the highest praise, and both had been on straight rises through the company, until the point of having children, and had held their own since then. In the case of one woman, her youngest started school this year, and so she was breathing a huge sigh of relief at having got through those early years, when the going seems so tough it's not worth the fight. Now she is faced with typing out a CV, which she hasn't had to do in a decade. As she commented, it is amazing how quickly company loyalty dissolves when you're being done over.

Most of my other female friends have encountered pretty serious obstacles to going back to work after children. I didn't have that many academic friends with children, but on the whole they have managed it pretty well. I'm the exception, but I had a husband and baby in London while I had to keep term in Cambridge, and I just found it all too painful and pointless. One of my girlfriends has had a career promotion from Head of 6th form in a London college to Head of 6th form in a very good girls' public school. It's been quite an eye opener for her, and she feels enormous guilt about her youngest, but she is clearly also relishing the upgrade.

But apart from this friend, I think that it is fair to say that all my other girlfriends who have had 2 or more children have had to grapple with huge career changes, downsizing, going part time, changing career altogether. Ones who have managed well, such as a friend who became an MD of her company between children, then later left to set up her own consultancy, have masses of family support nearby, or have the money to buy in excellent childcare.

I'm talking, obviously, about women who had careers before having children. A few of them now have jobs -- one retrained as a teacher, and I wonder if others will follow?

What is most upsetting about the two latest victims is that they seem collateral damage of the recession, an opportunity to retrench on progressive employment practice, in favour of younger, cheaper models without family commitments. So my friends are no longer exactly victims of patriarchy, since they have been well educated and enabled to soar in the first half of their careers (and I have no doubt they will go on to achieve amazing things). They are victims of capitalism. Yet not quite in the way that men are also victimized by capitalism, and laid off, expelled when they become too expensive or troublesome. These women were distinctly targeted because they do not participate in presenteeism. There is no other problem in their performance. They were well liked, and did their jobs well, without simply sitting around in the office until all hours. They simply did not fraternize.

I think that my girlfriends have disappeared in the central portion of the Venn diagram that exists connecting capitalism to patriarchy. Where these two powerful ideological forces overlap, there is a crosscurrent strong enough to drag the toughest of mothers under. Because to be a mother is to be vulnerable, in a way that no previous life state prepares women for. Until they become mothers, women only have to worry about achieving good exam results, the extent to which their physical appearance helps or hinders their working lives, avoiding sexual predation, finding a partner, building their careers.

Once they are mothers, they have a double focus that they cannot undo. However conditionally, they are still and always mothers. Perhaps this begs the question: is it possible to care more about one's career than about one's children? I think the answer is that the two spheres of affect are completely incommensurate. The two sorts of caring are fundamentally different. Caring about one's career means caring about how one is perceived; about making money that supports a lifestyle, which might include providing for children; it means caring about personal achievement, using one's talents to make an impression on the world, to change things for the better.

Caring about one's children means worrying about their development, being aware that they are innocent, striving not to damage that innocence, worrying about their education and their potential. And when all the worrying is momentarily in abeyance, it means simply loving them and knowing that you would lay your life down for them if you had to.

None of that caring can really be quantified. Perhaps some of it can be translated into economic terms, but that's really only to make a joke. There's no real contest: the children come first -- sometimes even as they are put in second place. It really is all for the children.

I know that it's easy to mock idealism like that. I know that I shout at my kids with the best of them, and that it feels as if it goes wrong every single day. I know that I get to the end of each day and wonder "what was that all about?". But I also know that I had to leave various career paths because of my children, and my feelings about them. I also wanted to focus on writing, which isn't connected to my children except insofar as I harbour dreams of penning novels as I pick them up from school and cry at their plays. It don't quite work like that I've found. But I haven't been trying recently.

I wish I could see ahead with 2020 vision, and know what the coming decade has in store for me, and my female cohort. The illnesses, the mastectomies, the divorces, the redundancies, the accidents, the deaths, the triumphs, the jealousies.... We really are just caught up in the great game of life now. I want to know where I sit -- is it in the window bay, just behind a curtain and out of sight, commenting on it all?

Friday, 18 December 2009

Zadie Smith is brilliant

I came across the essay below by Zadie Smith in January's Prospect, and was blown away by it. What I love is that she is so honest about what she calls micromanagement of novel-writing, giving credibility to the model that privileges just feeling one's way, rather than knowing what the ending is.

When I was working on my doctorate (which I'm afraid is still my point of reference for writing), I was told so often by people that it was better to know exactly where one was going. I could always make constructions for my phd, that neatly put in boxes what I was trying to say, but I could never be bothered to write into a box. I desperately wanted my phd to be a voyage of discovery, where even I would not know what I was unearthing until it appeared on the page in front of me. After all, it was a doctorate on Proust, who essentially did much the same thing. Zadie Smith still organizes her lecture into sections, but given what she says about dismantling scaffolding where one recognizes it, I wonder whether she put that armature in after writing what she wanted to say?

My doctoral research method, based on micro-readings and micro-management, was excessively painful, but I definitely hit the zone that ZS (what fortuitous initials, Barthes would have been delighted -- they sound so swashbuckling, Zorro with a smile) describes, where nothing else apart from my piece of writing mattered. To my great shame, what did not matter was the death of my grandmother. I had unplugged the phone, and was high on final changes, knowing that my grandmother had slipped into a coma from which she would not recover. I spent the night printing out the wretched pages of the doctorate, lying on my back in the smelly printing room, knees apart, panting, for all the world as though I was in labour. And in that very night, my grandmother died. I only found out the next day when I had limped back from the binder's, and plugged in the phone again.

I liked ZS's references to the way other people's words seem important at one time, and then out of the blue cease to be so. Is it really possible to change one's self through a piece, an act, of writing? Permanently? Perhaps. I also liked her discussion of porosity -- writing with the books of others open and strewn around her, dipping in to temper her own style, her own sensibility. It gives me huge hope, because I did the same while I was writing Proustian Passions. I felt guilty about it, because I felt that I should "know all that stuff", and was perpetually failing, and cheating, by turning and returning to other people's books. But somehow other people's style was very often the key to unlocking a thought I could not frame. Proust must have written his pastiches in something of the same spirit, and he definitely drew constantly on the work of others, sometimes in awe, sometimes as a humble resonance with his own thoughts.

Proust was a writer who relied on emergence, and the powers and haphazardness of rhapsody. He too hoped to make discoveries about selfhood through the very act of writing. He didn't go quite as far as automatic writing, because he mistrusted the idea that we might only give way to our unconsious minds as much as the idea that we can be completely ruled by our conscious minds. He is always betwixt and between. That's why he is such a brilliant writer on the human ego. I like the fact that Zadie Smith is also always betwixt and between, always in medias res with her writing, with each project. It seems more humble and more authentic to say that writing happens in the present (even if we go back and edit, and change what has been written: we are still doing that editing in the present, albeit another present moment from the original act).

So here is Zadie Smith's lecture:

What follows is a version of a lecture given to the students of Columbia University’s writing programme in New York on Monday 24th March 2008. The brief: “to speak about some aspect of your craft.”

1. Macro Planners and Micro Managers

First, a caveat: what I have to say about craft extends no further than my own experience, which is what it is—12 years and three novels. Although this lecture will be divided into ten short sections meant to mark the various stages in the writing of a novel, what they most accurately describe, in truth, is the writing of my novels. That being said, I want to offer you a pair of ugly terms for two breeds of novelist: the Macro Planner and the Micro Manager.

You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure—all before he writes the title page. This structural security gives him a great deal of freedom of movement. It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title. I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice. In one day the first 20 pages can go from first-person present tense, to third-person past tense, to third-person present tense, to first-person past tense, and so on. Several times a day I change it. Because I am an English novelist enslaved to an ancient tradition, with each novel I have ended up exactly where I began: third person, past tense. But months are spent switching back and forth. Opening other people’s novels, you recognise fellow Micro Managers: that opening pile-up of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. In the case of On Beauty, my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first 20 pages for almost two years. To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first 20 pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.

Yet while OPD is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

2. Other People’s Words, Part One

It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself. This is hard to do alone. I gather sentences round me, quotations, the literary equivalent of a cheerleading squad. Except that analogy’s screwy—cheerleaders cheer. I put up placards that make me feel bad. For five years I had a line from Gravity’s Rainbow stuck to my door:

“We have to find meters whose scales are unknown in the world, draw our own schematics, getting feedback, making connections, reducing the error, trying to learn the real function… zeroing in on what incalculable plot?”

At that time, I guess I thought that it was the duty of the novel to rigorously pursue hidden information: personal, political, historical. I say I guess because I don’t recognise that writer any more, and already find her idea of the novel oppressive, alien, useless. I don’t think this feeling is unusual, especially when you start out. Not long ago I sat next to a young Portuguese novelist at dinner and told him I intended to read his first novel. He grabbed my wrist, genuinely distressed, and said: “Oh, please don’t! Back then, all I read was Faulkner. I had no sense of humour. My God, I was a different person!”

That’s how it goes. Other people’s words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write. Much of the excitement of a new novel lies in the repudiation of the one written before. Other people’s words are the bridge you use to cross from where you were to wherever you’re going.

Recently I came across a new quote. It’s my screen saver now, my little scrap of confidence as I try to write a novel. It is a thought of Derrida’s and very simple:

“If a right to a secret is not maintained then we are in a totalitarian space.”

Which is to say: enough of human dissection, of entering the brains of characters, cracking them open, rooting every secret out! For now, this is the new attitude. Years from now, when this book is done and another begins, another change will come.

“My God, I was a different person!”—I think many writers think this, from book to book. A new novel, begun in hope and enthusiasm, grows shameful and strange to its author soon enough. After each book is done, you look forward to hating it (and you never have to wait long); there is a weird, inverse confidence to be had from feeling destroyed, because being destroyed, having to start again, means you have space in front of you, somewhere to go. Think of that revelation Shakespeare put in the mouth of King John: “Now my soul has elbow room!” Fictionally speaking, the nightmare is losing the desire to move.

3. Other People’s Words, Part Two

Some writers won’t read a word of any novel while they’re writing their own. Not one word. They don’t even want to see the cover of a novel. As they write, the world of fiction dies: no one has ever written, no one is writing, no one will ever write again. Try to recommend a good novel to a writer of this type while he’s writing and he’ll give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife. It’s a matter of temperament. Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra—they’ll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in a certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigour when I’m too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I’m syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.

Yet you meet students who feel that reading while you write is unhealthy. Their sense is that it corrupts voice by influence and, moreover, that reading great literature creates a sense of oppression. For how can you pipe out your little mouse song when Kafka’s Josephine the Mouse Singer pipes so much more loudly and beautifully than you ever could? To this way of thinking, the sovereignty of one’s individuality is the vital thing, and it must be protected at any price, even if it means cutting oneself off from that literary echo chamber EM Forster described, in which writers speak so helpfully to one another, across time and space. Well, each to their own, I suppose.

For me, that echo chamber was essential. I was 14 when I heard John Keats in there and in my mind I formed a bond with him, a bond based on class—though how archaic that must sound, here in America. Keats was not working-class, exactly, nor black—but in rough outline his situation seemed closer to mine than the other writers I came across. He felt none of the entitlement of, say, Virginia Woolf, or Byron, or Pope, or Evelyn Waugh or even PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Keats offers his readers the possibility of entering writing from a side door, the one marked “Apprentices Welcome Here.” For Keats went about his work like an apprentice; he took a kind of MFA of the mind, albeit alone, and for free, in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban, lower- middle-class boy, a few steps removed from the literary scene, he made his own scene out of the books of his library. He never feared influence—he devoured influences. He wanted to learn from them, even at the risk of their voices swamping his own. And the feeling of apprenticeship never left him: you see it in his early experiments in poetic form; in the letters he wrote to friends expressing his fledgling literary ideas; it’s there, famously, in his reading of Chapman’s Homer, and the fear that he might cease to be before his pen had gleaned his teeming brain. The term role model is so odious, but the truth is it’s a very strong writer indeed who gets by without a model kept somewhere in mind. I think of Keats. Keats slogging away, devouring books, plagiarising, impersonating, adapting, struggling, growing, writing many poems that made him blush and then a few that made him proud, learning everything he could from whomever he could find, dead or alive, who might have something useful to teach him.

4. Middle-of-the-Novel Magical Thinking

In the middle of a novel, a kind of magical thinking takes over. To clarify, the middle of the novel may not happen in the actual geographical centre of the novel. By middle of the novel I mean whatever page you are on when you stop being part of your household and your family and your partner and children and food shopping and dog feeding and reading the post—I mean when there is nothing in the world except your book, and even as your wife tells you she’s sleeping with your brother her face is a gigantic semi-colon, her arms are parentheses and you are wondering whether rummage is a better verb than rifle. The middle of a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it. Time collapses. You sit down to write at 9am, you blink, the evening news is on and 4,000 words are written, more words than you wrote in three long months, a year ago. Something has changed. And it’s not restricted to the house. If you go outside, everything—I mean, everything—flows freely into your novel. Someone on the bus says something—it’s straight out of your novel. You open the paper—every single story in the paper is directly relevant to your novel. If you are fortunate enough to have someone waiting to publish your novel, this is the point at which you phone them in a panic and try to get your publication date brought forward because you cannot believe how in tune the world is with your unfinished novel right now, and if it isn’t published next Tuesday maybe the moment will pass and you will have to kill yourself.

Magical thinking makes you crazy—and renders everything possible. Incredibly knotty problems of structure now resolve themselves with inspired ease. See that one paragraph? It only needs to be moved, and the whole chapter falls into place! Why didn’t you see that before? You randomly pick a poetry book off the shelf and the first line you read ends up being your epigraph—it seems to have been written for no other reason.

5. Dismantling the Scaffolding

When building a novel you will use a lot of scaffolding. Some of this is necessary to hold the thing up, but most isn’t. The majority of it is only there to make you feel secure, and in fact the building will stand without it. Each time I’ve written a long piece of fiction I’ve felt the need for an enormous amount of scaffolding. With me, scaffolding comes in many forms. The only way to write this novel is to divide it into three sections of ten chapters each. Or five sections of seven chapters. Or the answer is to read the Old Testament and model each chapter on the books of the prophets. Or the divisions of the Bhagavad Gita. Or the Psalms. Or Ulysses. Or the songs of Public Enemy. Or the films of Grace Kelly. Or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Or the liner notes to The White Album. Or the 27 speeches Donald Rumsfeld gave to the press corps during his tenure.

Scaffolding holds up confidence when you have none, reduces the despair, creates a goal—however artificial—an end point. Use it to divide what seems like an endless, unmarked journey, though by doing this, like Zeno, you infinitely extend the distance you need to go.

Later, when the book is printed and old and dog-eared, it occurs to me that I really didn’t need any of that scaffolding. The book would have been far better off without it. But when I was putting it up, it felt vital, and once it was there, I’d worked so hard to get it there I was loath to take it down. If you are writing a novel at the moment and putting up scaffolding, well, I hope it helps you, but don’t forget to dismantle it later. Or if you’re determined to leave it out there for all to see, at least hang a nice façade over it, as the Romans do when they fix up their palazzi.

6. First 20 Pages, Redux

Late in the novel, in the last quarter, when I am rolling downhill, I turn back to read those first 20 pages. They are packed tighter than tuna in a can. Calmly, I take off the top, let a little air in. What’s amusing about the first 20 pages—they are funny now, three years later, now I’m no longer locked up in them—is how little confidence you have in your readers when you begin. You spoon-feed them everything. You can’t let a character walk across the room without giving her backstory as she goes. You don’t trust the reader to have a little patience, a little intelligence. This reader, who, for all you know, has read Thomas Bernhard, Finnegans Wake, Gertrude Stein, Georges Perec—yet you’re worried that if you don’t mention in the first three pages that Sarah Malone is a social worker with a dead father, this talented reader might not be able to follow you exactly. It’s awful, the swing of the literary fraudulence pendulum: from moment to moment you can’t decide whether you’re the fraudulent idiot or your reader is the fraudulent idiot. For writers who work with character a good deal, going back to the first 20 pages is also a lesson in how much more delicate a thing character is than you think it is when you’re writing it. The idea of forming people out of grammatical clauses seems so fantastical at the start that you hide your terror in a smokescreen of elaborate sentence making, as if character can be drawn forcibly out of the curlicues of certain adjectives piled ruthlessly on top of one another. In fact, character occurs with the lightest of brushstrokes. Naturally, it can be destroyed lightly, too. I think of a creature called Odradek, who at first glance appears to be a “flat star-shaped spool for thread” but who is not quite this, Odradek who won’t stop rolling down the stairs, trailing string behind him, who has a laugh that sounds as if it has no lungs behind it, a laugh like rustling leaves. You can find the inimitable Odradek in a one-page story of Kafka’s called “The Cares of a Family Man.” Curious Odradek is more memorable to me than characters I spent three years on, and 500 pages.

7. The Last Day

There is one great advantage to being a Micro Manager rather than a Macro Planner: the last day of your novel truly is the last day. If you edit as you go along, there are no first, second, third drafts. There is only one draft, and when it’s done, it’s done. Who can find anything bad to say about the last day of a novel? It’s a feeling of happiness that knocks me clean out of adjectives. I think sometimes that the best reason for writing novels is to experience those four and a half hours after you write the final word. The last time it happened to me, I uncorked a good Sancerre I’d been keeping and drank it standing up with the bottle in my hand, and then I lay down in my backyard on the paving stones and stayed there for a long time, crying. It was sunny, late autumn, and there were apples everywhere, overripe and stinky.

8. Step Away from the Vehicle

You can ignore everything else in this lecture except number eight. It is the only absolutely 24-carat-gold-plated piece of advice I have to give you. I’ve never taken it myself, though one day I hope to. The advice is as follows.

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. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go onstage and read from them. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your own novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go onstage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all the pieces of deadwood, stupidity, vanity and tedium are distressingly obvious to you. Two years earlier, when the proofs came, you looked at the same page and couldn’t see a comma out of place. And by the way, that’s true of the professional editors, too; after they’ve read a manuscript multiple times, they stop being able to see it. You need a certain head on your shoulders to edit a novel, and it’s not the head of a writer in the thick of it, nor the head of a professional editor who’s read it in 12 different versions. It’s the head of a smart stranger who picks it off a bookshelf and begins to read. You need to get the head of that smart stranger somehow. You need to forget you ever wrote that book.

9. The Unbearable Cruelty of Proofs

Proofs are so cruel! Breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain. Proofs are the wasteland where the dream of your novel dies and cold reality asserts itself. When I look at loose-leaf proofs, fresh out of the envelope, bound with a thick elastic band, marked up by a conscientious copy editor, I feel quite sure I would have to become a different person entirely to do the work that needs to be done here. To correct what needs correcting, fix what needs to be fixed. The only proper response to an envelope full of marked-up pages is “Give it back to me! Let me start again!” But no one says this because by this point exhaustion has set in. It’s not the book you hoped for, maybe something might yet be done—but the will is gone. There’s simply no more will to be had. That’s why proofs are so cruel, so sad: the existence of the proof itself is proof that it is already too late. I’ve only ever seen one happy proof, in King’s College Library: the manuscript of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot, upon reaching his own point of exhaustion, had the extreme good fortune to meet Ezra Pound, a very smart stranger, and with his red pen Ezra went to work. And what work! His pen goes everywhere, trimming, cutting, slicing, a frenzy of editing, the why and wherefore not especially obvious, at times, indeed, almost ridiculous; almost, at times, indiscriminate… Whole pages struck out with a single line.

Underneath Pound’s markings, The Waste Land is a sad proof like any other—too long, full of lines not worth keeping, badly structured. Lucky Eliot, to have Ezra Pound. Lucky Fitzgerald, to have Maxwell Perkins. Lucky Carver, we now know, to have Gordon Lish. Hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable—mon frère! Where have all the smart strangers gone?

10. Years Later: Nausea, Surprise and Feeling OK

I find it very hard to read my books after they’re published. I’ve never read White Teeth. Five years ago I tried; I got about ten sentences in before I was overwhelmed with nausea. More recently, when people tell me they have just read that book, I do try to feel pleased, but it’s a distant, disconnected sensation, like when someone tells you they met your second cousin in a bar in Goa. I suspect White Teeth and I may never be reconciled—I think that’s simply what happens when you begin writing a book at the age of 21. Then, a year ago, I was in an airport somewhere and I saw a copy of The Autograph Man, and on a whim, I bought it. On the plane I had to drink two of those mini bottles of wine before I had the stomach to begin. I didn’t manage the whole thing, but I read about two-thirds, and at that incredible speed with which you can read a book if you happen to have written it. And it was actually not such a bad experience—I laughed a few times, groaned more than I laughed and gave up when the wine wore off—but for the first time, I felt something other than nausea. I felt surprise. The book was genuinely strange to me; there were whole pages I didn’t recognise, didn’t remember writing. And because it was so strange I didn’t feel any particular animosity towards it. So that was that: between that book and me there now exists a sort of blank truce, neither pleasant nor unpleasant.

Finally, while writing this lecture, I picked up On Beauty. I read maybe a third of it, not consecutively, but chapters here and there. As usual, the nausea; as usual, the feeling of fraudulence and the too-late desire to wield the red pen all over the place—but something else, too, something new. Here and there—in very isolated pockets —I had the sense that this line, that paragraph, these were exactly what I meant to write, and the fact was, I’d written them, and I felt OK about it, felt good, even. It’s a feeling I recommend to all of you. That feeling feels OK.

This lecture appears in her new collection “Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays” (Hamish Hamilton). © Zadie Smith

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Writing for Children

I've been reading The Lottie Project by Jacqueline Wilson to my daughter, Beauty. I have to confess that I look forward to the evening read specifically because this book is so excellent. My first foray into Wilson, and I'm hooked.

The story moves between Charlie's account of her life at school and with her young mother, Jo, and sections excerpted from Charlie's Victorians school project. She has hit upon the idea of writing her project in the form of a kind of diary, the servant girl Lottie's life. Each chapter about Charlie is headed with themes such as 'Family', 'Sunday, 'Courtship' and so on. As the story unfolds, we realize that each chapter is then mirrored or echoed by Lottie, who discusses a parallel theme in her own life. Charlie and Lottie are two halves of the same person, modern day Charlotte, and her imagined understanding of a Victorian underling.

Jo is a single mum. The way Wilson writes about single parent family life opens up the issue in a way that avoids false pathos and sentimental or sanctimonious pity and schadenfreude. The only quibble is that Jo, the mother, comes originally from a very middle class background. This gives plenty of comic fodder in the form of her snobbish parents, who feel she has 'fallen on hard times', and are chary of supporting her in her fallenness. However, what this characterization avoids is opening the Pandora's box of single motherhood for a young woman without the advantages of education that Jo appears to have had. Wilson is still having to rely on the indices of normality which in fact demonstrate privilege. Although Charlie's family unit is not financially well off, it is educationally and culturally above average. She has not been to or heard of the V & A, but this does not automatically correlate with cultural impoverishment. It's made clear that Charlie is clever, and interested in her history project, although not in the same academic way as her friend James Edwards.

Wilson's intention seems to be more to invert the novelistic family norm: she wants to open the notion of the family, and look at other models than the one so often portrayed in fiction for children (although it is surprising how often the family lacks a father, eg Swallows and Amazons, The Farawar Tree series).

Wilson's device of setting her story in the very researching of Charlie's Victorians project is actually much more compelling than the issue of how she treats single motherhood. This gives a fabulous formal structure that is easy for a young reader to grasp and eminently 'literary'. It gives automatic licence to discuss Victorian literature, through the character of the studious James. And it demystifies history, allowing it to be a version of a story among others -- in this case, the rarely shown perspective of the servant girl, forced to live away from her own home, and look after the children of the rich, while unable to see her own mother.

Marjorie Blackman's prose poem Cloud Busting is another fabulously inventive, teasing, and questioning story for children. It takes the perspective of a boy whose erstwhile credibility has rested on being the class bully. A new boy arrives at his school, who looks like a bit of a wimp. Despite himself, Sam makes friends with the new boy, but refuses to display this friendship. One day the boy saves Sam from an oncoming car. This binds them together. The boy tells him that he is allergic to nuts, and asks him not to tell anyone else, but Sam forgets, and tells his so-called best friend, Alex. Alex, for a joke, feeds the boy a peanut butter sandwich, and the boy nearly dies. Sam realizes that he has been a coward, and is the real cause of the accident. The boy stays at the school for a time, but no longer looks at Sam, and eventually his mother takes him out of the school. Sam writes the poem as a response to a task set by his English teacher, incriminating himself, confessing, and meditating on his friendship with the unusual, highly imaginative boy.

The language in the poem is very simple. It is divided into chapter-like sections, each using a distinct rhythm or rhyme scheme which amplifies the unfolding narrative. There are a series of revelations -- not least that Sam is the bully the poem discusses, and that the boy survives the accident -- the impression that he is dead runs through most of the poem. This is heavy stuff for young readers, but Blackman unpeels her real quarry: loyalty, honesty and the nature of friendship. There is more the a suggestion that the boy represents the possibilities of the imagination and of writing, undone by the real world with its hierarchies, sociopathies and instrumentalism.

I have learnt as much from re-reading children's literature or discovering new authors as I ever have from studying French literature. Thank God for good children's writers, the trailblazers for my children's future private pleasures.

La boulimie

When I was writing about A la recherche, I stumbled across an amazing quotation:

"Because they don't take in what is really nourishing about art, they need artistic joys all the time, victims of a bulimia that never fills them up."

I thought this was an extraordinary sentence when I first saw it, and made it the epigraph of my book. I didn't even know 'la boulimie' was a word back in the 1900s. Ever since, I guess I have been trying to make decisions about 'what is really nourishing about art', trying to find a credo to live by, and avoid the trap that I think Proust absolutely put his finger on. By using bulimia as a metaphor for the ways in which we fail to find satisfaction from our lives in general, and for him, from art in particular, he neatly brought together all kinds of appetite, some conscious and some unconscious.

We're all hungry for experience, don't want to waste our time on earth, and this shades over into greed when some of our needs are met, but not all; and when we can see that others have more of what we think we want than we do. We are always perilously close to living beyond our emotional, intellectual, financial etc means, because of our very striving. We're congenitally doomed to dissatisfaction, it's the source of most of our unhappiness.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Constellation Therapy

Several months ago, in November 2009, I attended a rather wonderful course at The School of Life ( The morning involved several exercises designed to enable us to reflect on our family makeup. The afternoon included a session introducing us to constellation therapy.

Constellation therapy relies on a theatrical moment. It isn't (quite) a trick, but nor is it completely devoid of trickery. A group of people sit in a circle and compose themselves through breathing techniques. Someone offers a problem. He or she briefly names the problem, and has a short discussion with the therapist about the background to the issue. Then the questioner is invited to choose several people from the circle, who are to represent key characters in the issue. The issue is always interpersonal.

These representatives are then positioned, seemingly at random, by the questioner, within the circle. The questioner acts instinctively, placing the representatives in a pattern, or constellation, that makes sense to him or her. Then she or he takes a seat with the rest of the group.

The therapist moves amongst the representatives, and simply asks them how they feel at being put in such a position. This is where it becomes astonishing: the representatives, in talking about how they feel in the present moment, somehow speak about the problem facing the questioner. The therapist starts to move the representatives around, and gradually this repositioning opens a dialogue, the possibility of a solution to the problem. It must work like synecdoche: a part stands in for, and reveals, the whole. The sceptre stands in for, and reveals, the idea of monarchy. The representatives stand in for, and reveal, a family dynamic.

Ever the willing experimentalist, I stuck my hand up, and offered a problem that troubles me. I duly chose 4 representatives, and shuffled them around. Then I sat down and looked at what I had done. And started to cry.

I found that I had positioned a figure representing myself, and one standing in for Beauty (my daughter), both facing outwards, but very close together, with Beauty just at my shoulder. The therapist pointed out that figures who look out of the circle are often looking for a missing family member, someone who has been written out of the family.

To my own astonishment, I heard myself talking about my crippled Uncle Antony, rather than my own father, or any more obvious 'missing' person in my family. I might easily have talked about my father -- I will never know why I didn't. I realized that the constellation I had put together, which was supposed to stand in for my current family, was an uncanny replay of the family structure that prevailed while I was growing up — and that it would probably also have been true of my mother's family. All looking for the same missing person, my poor, disabled uncle.

I came home truly shaken by this event. It had never, ever occurred to me that a 'missing figure' might be exerting an influence over the shape of the family I grew up in. I had always looked at the palpable present state of my family, never at what had been written out of it. That's not quite true: I had always looked from the perspective of my father, never from that of my mother.

I was always jealous of my brother as a child -- it's eased a lot since we both left home. I am starting to understand that my jealousy was probably triggered because my mother helplessly compensated for her guilt about her crippled brother through an especial closeness with her son. Somehow I had never before made this thought concrete for myself. I could not separate it fully from myself. Yet paradoxically my jealousy felt, even when I was a child, as though it had very little to do with me. I always sensed something missing in my relationship with my mother. I now wonder whether I was looking for something that was missing in her.

The constellation therapist mentioned that in families with excluded members, individuals will sometimes enact behaviour that actually 'belongs' to the excluded person, supplying what they instinctively realize is missing. To my shock, it occurred to me that some of the depression, and some of the extremes, I have felt in my life, which have often seemed as though they weren't 'mine', but borrowed or imported, may have been an attempt to cripple myself, as an instinctive compensation for the way in which I think my mother and her family were themselves crippled by Antony's disability. In most ways I was a very bright over-achiever, but my 'highly-strung' personality meant that this intelligence was forever being compromised by wild outbursts.

My mother often commented on my being a show-off. I was very exuberant, and highly excitable, and did need help as a child to control my wild impulses. I also loved acting and drama from an early age, and was good at it. But being called a show-off was like being stabbed: it crushed me completely. I suspect that she was also called a show-off, and also learnt to crush her exuberance, and simply couldn't bear it in me.

I do the same to my own daughter. I try very hard not to crush her, but to teach her ways to keep or become calm. She appears super-resilient, but my great fear is that I might have done as well, while inside, my self-esteem was shrinking throughout my childhood and adolescence.

Throughout my life I have monitored social situations like a hawk, watching for the boundaries of permissible showing-off — this was why I loved academia so much while I was an undergraduate, because it was licensed showing-off: I was actively encouraged to display knowledge, argue back, produce insights, and make connections. I was also able, as an undergraduate, to combine academic work almost seamlessly with a huge amount of stage acting, so that the boundaries between thought and acting became porous.

I am still very frightened of being criticized and judged, and have gone to great lengths to avoid censure — again, part of becoming an academic was about controlling other people's reactions to me.

It is now May 2010, and I am still digesting the thoughts and feelings of what was undoubtedly an epiphany during that afternoon at the School of Life. I have since taken my own children to visit my uncle, who lives in a home in Norfolk. When I first told my daughter that she had a great-uncle, her granny's brother, but that he had always been disabled, the first thing she said was: "Oh, poor Granny P". I knew that she would be able to manage a visit to see him, and she was determined to meet him -- she wanted to meet this important member of her family. She and the Beast chose toys they thought he would like, and took them to show him. The Beast showed him how to play with a magnetic toy, and Beauty talked to him. He was delighted with the attention, and loved the game.

It is now possible for my mother and I to talk more evenly about him, and about the practical issues that may lie ahead for him as he and my mother age. Finally we are inching towards a normal view of something that has blighted my mother's whole life -- not the fact that her brother was crippled by his birth, but the feelings that were never taken into account or dealt with around him. My mother had to grow up overnight. She needed to look after her mother, who was absent from her, frail, depressed, withdrawn. She was expected to achieve very highly, because the son could not. She still cries because she remembers a moment when she was asked if she would like her wild and uncontrollable brother to 'go away', and she answered: "Yes, please". Poor Granny P. No wonder she could not bear my jealousy of my own brother. No wonder I exhibited it.