discuss amongst yourselves

“The middle of [writing] a novel is a state of mind. Strange things happen in it.” — Zadie Smith

“I taught briefly; there I met students who felt that reading while you write is unhealthy. Their idea was it corrupts your voice by influence, and moreover, that reading great literature creates a sense of oppression….To this way of thinking, the sovereignty of one’s individuality is the vital thing, and it must be protected at any price, even it means cutting oneself off from that literary echo chamber E.M. Forster described, in which writers speak so helpfully to each other, across time and space.

Each to their own, I suppose. Without that echo chamber, I would never have written a word. I was about fourteen when I heard John Keats in there, and in my mind I formed a bond with him, a bond based on class — though how archaic that must sound, here in America. I knew he wasn’t working-class, exactly, and of course he wasn’t black — but in rough outline his situation felt closer to mine than the other writers I’d come across. He felt none of the entitlement of, say, Virginia Woolf, or Byron, or Pope, or Evelyn Waugh. That was very important to me — I think you may have to be English to understand how important. To me, Keats offered the possibility of entering writing from a side door, the one marked Apprentices Welcome Here.

Keats went about his work just like an apprentice; he took a kind of M.F.A. of the mind, albeit alone, and for free, in his little house in Hampstead. A suburban, lower-middle-class boy, a few steps removed from the literary scene, he made his own scene out of the books of his library. He never feared influence — he devoured influences. He wanted to learn from them, even at the risk of their voices swamping his own. And the feeling of apprenticeship never left him; you see it in his early experiments in poetic form, in the letters he wrote to friends expressing his fledgling literary ideas..

The term ‘role model’ is so odious, but the truth is, it’s a very strong writer indeed who gets by without a model kept somewhere in mind. So I think of Keats. Keats slogging away, devouring books, plagiarizing, impersonating, adapting, struggling, growing, writing many poems that made him blush, and then a few that made him proud, learning everything he could from whomever he could find, dead or alive, who might have something useful to teach him.”

–Zadie Smith


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