Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith

  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 facade over it, as the Romans do when they fix up their palazzi.


  Late in the novel, in the last quarter, when I am rolling downhill, I turn back to read those first twenty 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 twenty 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 twenty 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 five hundred pages.


  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.


  You can ignore everything else in this lecture except number eight. It is the only absolutely twenty-four-karat-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 twelve 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.


  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 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 it. 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 Kings College Library: the manuscript of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. 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 Wasteland 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?


  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 twenty-one. 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 ti
mes, 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 recognize, didn’t remember writing. And because it was so strange I didn’t feel any particular animosity toward 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 okay about it, felt good, even. It’s a feeling I recommend to all of you. That feeling feels okay.




  There are no direct flights from England to Liberia. Either you go to Brussels or you book with Astraeus, a specialist airline named after a Roman goddess of justice. It runs a service to Freetown, in neighboring Sierra Leone. The clientele are mostly Africans dressed as if for church. Formal hats, zirconias and Louis Vuitton holdalls are popular. A toddler waddles down the aisle in a three-piece suit and bow tie. Only non-Africans are dressed for “Africa,” in khakis, sandals, wrinkled T-shirts. Their bags are ostentatiously simple: frayed rucksacks, battered cases. The luggage of a nomad people.

  A cross section of travelers sit in a row. A glamorous African girl in a silky blouse, an English nun, an American aid worker and a Lebanese man, who describes himself as a “fixer”: “I fix things in Freetown—electrical systems, buildings.” He calls the well-dressed Africans soon-comes. “They come, they soon go. Their families assume they’re rich—they try to live up to this idea.” The plane prepares to land. The fixer looks out the window and murmurs, “White man’s graveyard,” in the same spirit that people feel compelled to say “the Big Apple” as their plane approaches JFK. This, like much else on the plane, accommodates the Africa of imagination.

  In Sierra Leone everyone deplanes, taking the Africa of imagination with them, a story that has at least a familiar form. Who remains in the story of Liberia? Barely a dozen people, ushered to the front to stare at one another across the wide aisles of business class. The nun is traveling on: Sister Anne of the Corpus Christi Carmelites. Brown socks in brown sandals, brown wimple; a long, kindly face, mapped with wrinkles. She has worked in Liberia since the eighties, running a mission school in Greenville. “We left when the war became impossible—we’re back now, teaching students. It’s not easy. Our students have seen such terrible things. Beyond imagination, really.” She looks troubled when asked to describe the Liberian character. “They are either very, very good people—or the opposite. It is very hard to be good in these conditions.”

  Flying low over Monrovia there are no lights visible, only flood rain and sheet lightning illuminating the branches of palm trees, the jungle in a bad movie. The airport is no bigger than a village school. The one-ring baggage carousel is open to the elements; through the aperture the lightning flashes. There are more baggage handlers than passengers. They mill without occupation, bored, soaking wet. It seems incredible that heat like this persists through rain. The only thing to see is the obligatory third-world Coke billboard, ironic in exact proportion to the distance from its proper American context. This one says COKE—MAKE IT REAL. Just after the Coke sign there is a contrary sign, an indication that irony is not a currency in Liberia. It is worn by a girl who leans against the exit in a T-shirt that says THE TRUTH MUST BE TOLD.

  The truth about Liberia is disputed. It consists of simultaneously asserted, mutually exclusive “facts.” The CIA World Factbook states that “in 1980, a military coup led by Samuel Doe ushered in a decade of authoritarian rule,” but not—as is widely believed in Liberia—that the CIA itself funded both the coup and the regime. Doe’s successor, Charles Taylor, instigator of the 1989-97 Liberian civil war, in which an estimated three hundred thousand people died, is presently in the Hague awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, yet there are supportive hand-painted billboards across Monrovia (CHARLES TAYLOR IS INNOCENT!) and hagiographic collections of his speeches for sale in the airport. In Europe and America, the Liberian civil war is described as a “tribal conflict.” In Liberian classrooms children from half a dozen different tribes sit together and do not seem to know what you mean when you ask if this causes a difficulty.

  There is no real road network in Liberia. During the late-summer rainy season much of the country is inaccessible. Tonight the torrential rain is unseasonable (it is March), but the road is the best in the country, properly surfaced: one long, straight line from the airport to the Mamba Point Hotel in Monrovia. Lysbeth Holdaway, Oxfam’s press officer, sits in the back of an all-weather 4x4 outlining Liberia’s present situation. She has long chestnut hair, is in youthful middle age and dresses in loose linen; she looks like the actress Penelope Wilton. She “loves gardening and most of Radio 4” and worked for many years at the BBC. Four or five times a year she visits some of the more benighted countries of the world. Even by the standards with which she is familiar, Liberia is exceptional. “Three quarters of the population live below the poverty line—that’s one U.S. dollar a day—half are on less than fifty cents a day. What infrastructure there was has been destroyed—roads, ports, municipal electricity, water, sanitation, schools, hospitals—all desperately lacking or nonexistent; eighty-six-percent unemployment, no street lights. . . .” Through the car window dead street lamps can be seen, stripped of their components during the war. Lightning continues to reveal the scene: small huts made of mud bricks; sheets of corrugated iron and refuse; more bored young men, sitting in groups, dully watching the cars go by. The cars are of two types: huge Toyota Land Cruiser pickups like this one, usually with “UN” stamped on their hoods, or taxis, dilapidated yellow Nissans, the back windows of which reveal six people squeezed into the backseats, four in the front. Our driver, John Flomo, is asked whether the essentials—a water and sanitation system, electricity, schools—existed prior to the war. “Some, yes. In towns. Less in the country.” Even the electricity that lights the airport is not municipal. It comes from a hydro plant belonging to Firestone, the American rubber company famous for its tires. Firestone purchased one million acres of this country in 1926, a ninety-nine-year lease at the bargain rate of six cents an acre. It uses its hydro plant to power its operation. The airport electricity is a “gift” to the nation, although Firestone’s business could not function without an airport. “All this is Firestone,” says Flomo, pointing at the darkness.


  The Mamba Point Hotel is an unusual Liberian building. It is air-conditioned, with toilets and clean drinking water. In the parking lot a dozen UN trucks are parked. In the breakfast room the guests are uniform: button-down collars, light khakis, MacBooks. “Here’s the crazy thing,” one man tells another over croissants. “Malaria isn’t even a hard problem to solve.” At a corner table, an older woman reels off blunt statistics to a newcomer, who notes them down: “Population, three point five million. Over a hundred thousand with HIV; male life expectancy, thirty-eight; female, forty-two. Sixty-five Liberian dollars to one U.S. Officially literacy is fifty-seven percent, but that figure is really prewar—there’s this whole missing generation. . . .” In the corner bar, a dozen male Liberian waiters rest against the counter, devotedly following Baywatch.

  All trips by foreigners, however brief, are done in the NGO Land Cruisers. The two-minute journey to Oxfam headquarters passes an open rubbish dump through which people scavenge alongside skinny pigs. The NGO buildings are lined up on “UN Drive.” Each has a thick boundary wall, stamped with its own logo, patrolled by Liberian security. The American embassy goes further, annexing an entire
street. Oxfam shares its compound with UNICEF. These offices resemble an English sixth-form college, a white concrete block with swinging doors and stone stairwells. On each door there is a sticker: NO FIREARMS. Here Phil Samways, the country program manager, heads a small development team. He is fifty-four, sandy-haired, lanky, wearing the short-sleeved white shirt accountants favor in the summer months. Unusually, his is not a development background: for twenty years he worked at Anglian Water. He has an unsentimental, practical manner, speaking precisely and quickly: “We are moving out of the humanitarian disaster stage now—water and sanitation and so on. Now we’re interested in long-term development. We choose schemes that concentrate on education and livelihoods, and the rehabilitation of ex-combatants, of which there are thousands, many of them children. We hope you’ll talk to some of them. You’ll see a few of our school projects while you’re here, and our rural projects in Bong County, and also West Point, which is really our flagship project. West Point is a slum—half the population of Monrovia live in slums. And as you’ve seen, we have extreme weather—for eight months it rains like this and the country turns into a quagmire. Cholera is a massive problem. But you have to choose the area you’re going to concentrate on, and we’ve chosen education. We found when we asked people what they needed most, people often said education first, over toilets, basic sanitation. Which should tell you something.”

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