5 Zadie Smith Quotes On Writing That Will Change The Way You Think About Your Work

"I'm not trying to convince someone of an argument one way or another, generally," author Zadie Smith told cultural critic Wesley Morris, before a packed crowd in Brooklyn's St. Ann & The Holy Trinity Church on Wednesday night. "But I am trying to model a way of thinking."

She was referring, of course, to the essays that comprise her new collection, Feel Free — a title she admits she stole from a poem written by her husband, Nick Laird. In her essays about Jay-Z and Joni Mitchell, J.G. Ballard and Justin Bieber, libraries and Facebook, Smith traverses through many states of reflection. She rarely concludes the essays neatly — life is too complicated, and circumstances change too often and too quickly for that — but the journey through her various states of deliberation is the true joy of the collection. Indeed, in the foreword to the book, Smith admits that writing this collection — and her books — is a matter of finding balance between three essential things: "Writing exists (for me) at the intersection of three precarious, uncertain elements: language, the world, the self. The first is never wholly mine; the second I can only ever know in a partial sense; the third is a malleable and improvised response to the previous two."

In a conversation with Morris hosted by the Emma Straub-owned Books Are Magic bookstore at St. Ann's, Smith spoke in-depth about the way she operates as an author. Here are five brilliant things she said about writing:

On Meaning

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"I'm always aware of being slightly out of step. Because again, that Sartre line about existence preceding essence. That's the most important part to me. That, there are no essential qualities, as far as I'm concerned. You exist. You're thrown into the world. And you have to put it together. You have to make this kind of meaning for yourself."

On Writing

"Writing at every point is a leap into a complete unknown [...] At every point, you have the possibility of not being able to do it at all. You restart at every blank piece of paper. That's really exhilarating for me."

On Restrictions

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"Sometimes, restrictions can be creative. Instead of feeling frustrated by them, which I did have a tendency to do, I just decided to make the most of it — of not being able to move, in fact."

On Fiction

"Satisfaction is so hard to get writing novels — both for reader and writer. It's a very embarrassing thing, a novel, I think. Don't you think for the most part? It has no real necessity for being. It's ridiculously personal or partial. It can't make an argument for itself in the world, you know. At the same time, at the moment I'm reading Denis Johnson stories, and I think there's a sublimity in that kind of fiction which no essay can approach. For me – it does something to me that no essay could ever achieve. But that's Johnson."

On Essays

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"I think always about the Aristotelian idea of having ethos, pathos, and logos combined. [...] emotion is not a small part of it, it's incredibly important, an ethical part, too. But also the rational part. It's the rational part which normally, in my day to day life, I'm not fully engaged in rational thought. I'm a ranter like everyone else, and a shouter and a weeper and all that business. But when I'm writing, I get a chance to combine the three. Often, it's challenging. Because when you bring the three to bear, it's not always a pretty story for you. Speaking with emotion, you can always usually puff yourself up, defend your case, make yourself feel good. If you let the other two in — ethics being the awareness of people's points of view and the pressures of their point of view; logos being the rational part, which might say to you, yes, even if you feel this, even if you feel this very strongly, it still might not be true. Once you put those things in with pathos, then I find myself quite often challenged."