I have this terrible habit which involves going to the library and borrowing hordes of books that catch my eye, and then returning them unread. This is why I cannot be permitted to go to a bookshop in a book acquiring mood. At the library it’s safe. I can range around, eyes gleaming, picking up books and putting them back then checking them out, only to decide later that I don’t want to / don’t have capacity to read them or pick them up wondering why I thought I should read them at all. This is great for the writers who will at least receive a little payment for my borrow, but not so great for me who lugs around a bunch of books I’m never going to read. And perhaps not so good for the writer who isn’t read, which is kind of sad really. Anyway, my point is this: that almost happened with this book. Not because I decided I couldn’t remember why I wanted to read it, but because I developed an enthusiasm for something else and suddenly felt I didn’t have the capacity. Then I picked it up and started reading the first essay.
Next thing you know, I’m taking it on holiday (I wasn’t taking it, but then I couldn’t put it down). Changing My Mind (prescient title) is a collection of essays by Zadie Smith. I haven’t read Zadie Smith before – I think I owned White Teeth once and never got around to reading it – but after reading these essays I will be making an effort (not much of an effort really) to do so. What I found in the pages was an intelligent, erudite, funny and down to earth writer, someone who can connect intelligently at all levels, with a familiar, conversational voice, humility, insightfulness and enthusiasm which is infectious. Perhaps Smith’s most famous essay, the one which is often quoted, is this one which is based on a lecture that Smith gave to the students of Colombia University’s Writing Program, about macro planners and micro managers:
“You will recognise a Macro Planner from his Post-its, from those Moleskines he insists on buying. A Macro Planner makes notes, organizes material, configures a plot and creates structure – all before he writes the title page.[…] 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.”
It is worth reading the rest of the essay/lecture as what follows is a profoundly insightful and humble insight into what it is like being a writer, how you connect (or don’t) with your work and how you feel about it afterwards. It’s inspiring to the budding writer in the same way that Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life is inspiring and Dorothea Brandes’ Becoming A Writer is practical.
The book is structured into five themes: Reading, Being, Seeing, Feeling and Remembering, and each section has a number of essays to it, with the exception of Remembering which is a single section in memory of David Foster Wallace, and the only part of the book I really struggled with. It is as dense and impenetrable as Wallace’s writing is to many (myself included) and possibly the perfect homage to the man and his craft. But too cerebral and too knowing for me and perhaps too difficult to concentrate on when you’re trying to read it at the same time your twelve-year-old daughter is bored and desperate for a game of Pirate Fluxx (but I suspect if you’re a Wallace reader, it’s brilliant). By far my favourite sections were the first three. In Reading I found myself desperate to re-read Middlemarch (because it’s brilliant and Smith correctly calls it out as such), to read the works of E.M. Forster, who Smith really brings to life despite his ‘middle-of-the-road’ status, and to re-read Remainder by Tom McCarthy which Smith calls out as brilliant (because it is) and annoying (because it is). In Being she writes about being a writer (the famous essay mentioned above), about a trip to Liberia and a fantastic essay about Barack Obama and his flexible language, the way we exist in our language and how it enables us to reach different communities. Seeing made me want to re-watch some movies; this section includes a series of movie reviews Smith undertook for The Observer and is worth reading for her hilarious review of Memoirs of a Geisha alone. But her essays in appreciation of Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo are the most moving. Smith is never afraid to show her personal connection, her frailty in the face of a subject, and this comes over so strongly in this essay that I immediately went out and listed a bunch of Katharine Hepburn movies to force on my husband, because she’s absolutely nailed what it is about Hepburn which is amazing. Her enthusiasms speak for themselves, it’s not possible for me to replicate them except exactly, as I will do here as Smith explains her love for Reece Witherspoon (specifically around her appearance in Walk the Line):
“And then, at just the right moment, Reece Witherspoon takes over and brings the film home. Witherspoon has the kind of maniacal feminine perkiness that people of a Woosterish temperament cannot abide. I like her. I like her triangular chin and her head-girl can-do attitude. Here she plays Cash’s saviour and eventual second wife, June Carter, and it’s a great piece of casting: Witherspoon is a twelve-step programme in and of herself. She’s so capable, so hardworking, so upright and practical – underrated virtues amongst actresses. Physically, and in all other ways. Witherspoon makes the nest of what she has. She has June’s steely self-sufficiency down pat. ‘Marry me, June,’ begs Cash, not for the first time. ‘Oh, please, get up off your knees; you look pathetic’ is the sensible response.”
I loved this book. Okay, I struggled with the last part (as described) but that small niggle of my limited intelligence aside, this is a varied and interesting collection of essays from a writer who is able to bring herself out and make you feel like you’re dealing with a person, a hyper-intelligent one of course, who is simply sharing their enthusiasm and their wisdom, their connections, their ideas and their weaknesses. It is a highly personable, and yet very insightful read, and a joy and a pleasure and all of those things. I’m so glad I changed my mind and didn’t take it back to the library unread. I’d have missed a slice of brilliance, and the chance of an encounter with Smith’s fictional voice, if I did.