Yesterday I joined others in the packed Student Union Ballroom at UMass to hear Zadie Smith, whose novels include WHITE TEETH, ON BEAUTY, and most recently NW, give the Troy lecture, which was titled “Why I Write.” She spent quite a bit of time on the historical context of that question, which she says can plague her students in the writing program at NYU, some of whom feel so much has been said already. She assures them that the question goes back before the Internet surrounded us with words at the touch of our fingertips. She made the eighteenth century lit professors happy by talking about Jonathan Swift, and teaching me something, and spoke about how George Orwell addressed the question, and her responses to his four reasons.
She advocated for the way a novel can become “an intimate encounter with truth in a world that frequently only sees us as consumers.” She spoke of how while writing may look like freedom to those looking in, it rarely feels like that when she’s in the process, because she feels beholden to the reality of her characters, though she welcomes “the chance to get out of my corner. I can be anyone in fiction.” She likes to think of writing as more of craft than an art, likening it to making a chair that some may like, and some not, and she reduces her anxiety by thinking about writing sentence by sentence. Making one sentence as good as she can make it, “and then maybe the next one, too.”