Writing like Zadie Smith: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors

Writing like Zadie Smith: Cassie Sheets attempts to cultivate the routines of famous authors
(Image courtesy of Columbia University)

An undisciplined writer attempts to find a steady routine by following the routines of well-known authors, no matter how ridiculous they may be.

‘Tis the season for procrastination. My fall semester is over, and gone with it is the grueling, ridiculous endurance test of final exams, projects, and papers. I have come out the other side, and now all I want to do is hibernate in my fuzzy (but badly in need of a wash) robe until spring. I have spent the last week thoroughly enjoying the feeling of laziness, but I can only take so many baths while listening to klezmer Christmas music and drinking spiked apple cider. I can only eat a dozen snowman sugar cookies during a Netflix marathon of Too Cute! for so many episodes before I realize that actually baby animals are super gross, and watching a reality show about them kind of feels like wasting my life. I tried to bury these guilty garbage-life feelings with reliably mind-numbing consumerism, but I ran out of friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, dentists, hairdressers, sometimes-nemeses, OkCupid matches, and pets of the aforementioned people to buy gifts for, and that’s when I caved. It was time to roll up the sleeves of my fuzzy robe and write.

I read Zadie Smith’s ten rules for writers a couple of years ago, and I knew when I started these experiments, I would eventually have to try her process—mostly because rule number three is antithetical to everything I’m doing in this series. She advises, "Don't romanticize your ‘vocation’. You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no ‘writer's lifestyle’. All that matters is what you leave on the page." She stays true to this sentiment in describing her own process.

She says, "I write very slowly, and I rewrite continually, every day, over and over and over…. It’s a continual process. Every day, I read from the beginning up to where I’d got to and just edit it all, and then I move on. It’s incredibly laborious, and toward the end of a long novel it’s intolerable actually."

I swear I felt my atrophied brain screaming for mercy when I read that. But, I turned the AirPort off on my computer (Smith advises writing on a computer disconnected from the internet), turned off my phone, locked my door, and read the chapter I was working on from the beginning. It took me three hours to get through twenty pages, because I’m a horrible em dash and comma abuser—I like to add them everywhere, even where they probably don’t belong—and it took some time to revise some Herbert Selby Jr. length run-on sentences. The first two days, I only wrote an additional two pages. But sometime during the millionth rewrite, I reached the end of the pages I’d already written and kept writing for twelve more. Something about reading my own work from the beginning each time helped me get a much better idea of the voice of the narrator and my characters, and I started to have fun. (Not as much fun as Christmas baths, but you know, sort of fun.)

It was a fun I felt like I’d earned. There wasn’t anything romantic about the process. Much as I wish writing was more like a writing montage in an inspiring movie about writers—with pots of coffee, furious typing, throwing bad crumpled drafts at the trashcan (never in the trashcan), and at last pulling the final page from the typewriter and kissing a hefty manuscript—Smith’s method felt more like trying to sit through There Will Be Blood. Unlike trying to sit through that film, I felt Smith’s practical advice and process paid off in the end. In her ten rules, Smith says you should, “try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” When I finished the chapter and read it again for the billionth time, I felt like an enemy would be super jealous. And that was a good feeling.

Cassie Sheets is a student at Columbia College Chicago where she wastes twenty grand a year trying to learn how to write.

Filed under: Opinion

Tags: writing process, Zadie Smith

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