#55: A Zadie Smith Amuse-Bouche

Hi hi, friends,

Do you need something fun this Friday afternoon? Here’s a little something.

First, a bit of catch-up for new readers: Currently, the Black Cardigan letter is devoted to the theme of “literary beginnings.” I just finished a series on Henry James and his first big novel, Portrait of a Lady, which somehow most of you stuck around through, and now we’re pressing on to Zadie Smith and her first book, White Teeth.

To kick off the Zadie-ness, I wanted to share this story that comes courtesy of Nicole Cliffe, of The Toast and general-zinging-wonderfulness fame. Last year, Nicole tweeted an anecdote about a writing course she took from Smith. The story stayed with me as a funny but true example of kindness (both parts—the funniness and the kindness—kept growing on me) and it now has the added luster of being relevant to the topic at hand. Nicole’s since left Twitter so I couldn’t retrieve her tweets, but she agreed to write it up, which is EVEN BETTER.

When I was a shamefully and hopelessly callow Harvard undergraduate, I managed to claw my way into Zadie Smith’s fiction workshop, an opportunity I then squandered by being myself (lazy, self-absorbed, and not that good a writer). Zadie did not like us very much, with good reason. You’ve read “On Beauty”? That’s basically what she was dealing with. Mostly, when I think back on that workshop, I writhe with embarrassment, but I also think fondly of a very kind and generous thing she did for us a few weeks into the semester.

With a slightly grim expression, she walked around our table carefully setting down individual copies of a stapled short story, titled “Picnic, Lightning (with apologies to Nabokov.)” She informed us that this was a bad story that she had written, herself, in one of her own terrible undergraduate fiction seminars. She let us read it, and talked about how everyone writes bad things on the way to writing anything good. She talked about the unbelievable smugness of apologizing to Nabokov in your title. She talked about the necessary apprentice work of trying to sound like a much better writer, one that you love, and how as your own voice develops, you can let those avatars fall away. It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me, and I am sure I appreciated it not at all at the time.

At the end of class, she very carefully retrieved each copy of the story, and counted them. There is, after all, a limit to pedagogical generosity.

Worth keeping in mind: Smith started writing White Teeth as an undergraduate at Cambridge, too. So the other object-lesson I take from this anecdote is that sometimes you will write a terrible thing followed by something really, really great right on its heels.


• I’m quoted in this super-interesting piece that Jia Tolentino wrote for The New Yorker on the personal-essay boom of yesteryear’s internet, and that was really fun.

• This letter is coming to you this afternoon, instead of the weekend, because I’m just about to close up shop for the next nine days to work on my book. It’s a “vacation” and a “writing retreat” and a “residency” that is also my “bedroom,” which I will share with my fellow residency companions, “the dog and the cat.” I’m excited. My goal is to get to the close of a big section of my book, and I think I have most of it written, but it’s in so many pattern pieces it’s hard to tell. So it feels sumptuous to think of having a full week to get those parts all stitched up together.

Until next time,
I’m so sorry, Vlad,

Carrie Frye
Black Cardigan Edit