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accepting the 2014 moth award, zadie smith shared her experience/views on the art form of storytelling. watch her speech above (transcript below via medium.com) and let me know what you think:

Unlike the many talented storytellers here this evening, I can’t tell a tale unless it’s written down. Actually, until very recently I would not have called myself much of a storyteller at all — out of respect for the term. A storyteller was someone with a generative, unlimited imagination, the kind of person who makes worlds: someone like CS Lewis, say, or Ursula K Le Guin. Imagine a world in a wardrobe or a planet in which gender is not a fixed state but a condition, changing season by season. Those are stories. My own writing seemed to me more prosaic. I don’t make up marvelous tales. I only try to express — as clearly as possible — the thoughts and feelings many people have. Often my subjects are the simplest things in the world: joy, family, the weather, houses, streets. Nothing fancy. And when I sit down with these subjects my aim is clarity. I’m really trying to clear some of the muddle from my own brain — my brain being a very muddled place indeed. Sometimes I think my whole professional life has been based on this hunch I had, early on, that many people feel just as muddled as I do, and might be happy to tag along with me on this search for clarity, for precision. I love that aspect of writing. Nothing makes me happier than to hear a reader say: that’s just what I’ve always felt, but you said it clearly. I feel then that I’ve achieved something useful. But that has often seemed far away from real story-telling, and in truth there have been times over the past decade when I have felt quite distant from stories and unsure how to tell them. I forgot — as the rappers like to say — why I got into this game in the first place.

Then I had kids. But what a boring story: “Then I had kids.” Still, I have to be truthful. And the truth is something happened when I had kids. I went from not being able to think of a single story to being unable to stop seeing stories pretty much every place I looked. Now, before anybody raises a hand to object, I am not a biological essentialist, nor one of these people who believe a gift for empathy arrives along with the placenta. The explanation, in my opinion, is less dramatic: storybooks. For the first time since childhood I am back in the realm of stories and storybooks — three stories read out loud to a four year old, every night, on pain of death — and this practice has reawakened in me something I thought I’d misplaced a long time ago, on book tour, perhaps, or in the back row of a university lecture hall. This feeling of narrative possibility and wonder — this idea that every person is a world. How could I have forgotten that? Did I really almost drift away, down that anemic, intellectual path where storytelling is considered vulgar and characters a stain on the purity of a sentence? Dear Lord — almost. I’m so grateful now to have the opportunity to reacquaint myself with stories like The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl. I lie in bed with my daughter, reading aloud this Kafkaesque tale of a family of duck hunters, who wake up one morning with wings where their arms should be, and it sends me back to my desk with an ease and fluidity I haven’t felt since my own childhood.

Which is all to say this lovely award has come at the right moment, just when I find myself falling back in love with stories and appreciating anew what an unprecedented privilege it is to make your living telling them. The unlikeliest story of my life is the one about the girl from Willesden who found readers in the United States, and not a little of the credit for that is due to my good friend — and one-time publicist — Kimberly Burns, who is here tonight. Thank you. And thanks to everyone at The Moth for giving me an opportunity to use this stage to say thank you in person to some of my American readers, for their unexpected generosity, for the gift of their attention and time.

Now, I have one more person to thank, but before that I want to tell a short story concerning my first conscious experience of story-telling. I think when it’s done you may better understand the root of my conflicted feelings toward the form. Here goes:

Once upon a time, I was nine. It was summer in England, the sky was blue but also full of clouds. I was not — how can I put this — overburdened with friends. It was warm, but school was still in session, and this presented the insolvable problem of break time, for there is only so long you can walk around a playground pretending to be looking for your playmates. To hide my isolation, I spent a lot of time looking at the clouds, and at a strange ivy-covered tower that stood next door to our school. In the attic of that building, I decided, a tragic young woman lived, the prisoner of a God who did not want this girl to marry her true love, Superman. It didn’t make sense, but it was a story, and I got good at telling it. In order to draw attention to myself, I started telling it to kids in the playground. It grew more elaborate each time I told it, and I always finished up by swearing on my mother’s life. I swear! I swear there’s a young woman up there, and she’s sending smoke signals into the sky — in the shape of clouds — so when you see one that looks like superman, put a tac in your shoe. The more people with tacs in their shoe, the louder it will sound when you walk, and the louder it sounds when you walk, the — Oh, I don’t remember. There must have been a logic to it, but I can’t recall now what it was. Anyway the takeaway was: tac in the shoe. I was hell bent on this tac-in-the-shoe business. You’ve got to put a tac in your shoe or the poor girl will die! It’s true! I swear on my mother’s life! It’s a miracle my mother survived that summer.

Well, people seemed to be into my story, everyone seemed into it, really, all except this one girl — her name was Anupma — who proved to be a sceptic. She was very smart, Anupma — that was part of the problem. She was not moved by rhetoric. She had a fundamental logical issue with the smoke signals/clouds/superman trifecta. And one day, apropos of nothing at all — she turned to me in the playing fields and said: “That story isn’t true. It’s a lie. And I’m going to tell everyone.” And she started to run towards our classrooms. Watching her go, I experienced the ten-year-old version of acute despair. Everything I’d built, all my new friends, indeed, my sense of my own value — all of it seemed dependent on this ridiculous story, and she was threatening to reveal it for what it was: a lie. I had to stop her from reaching that classroom. I ran after her. She was fast — it wasn’t easy. But just by the sandpit, I put my leg in front of hers like an Italian footballer and dragged her violently to the ground, where her knee promptly split open and bled all over the concrete. Crying, filthy, she lay defeated on the floor, and the look she gave me I have never forgotten. It was a horrified question: What kind of a person is this? The nurse came; Anupma was taken to the medical room to be patched up, and as far as I know she did not rat on me, neither concerning my lies nor my casual brutality. At least, I was allowed to pass unmolested on to class. I caught up with my classmates in the hall. “What is that noise?” asked the teacher as we shuffled into class. Tap tap tap. It took me a second to recognize it myself. Tacs in every shoe.

Tonight my husband is here, and he has heard that story many times. Having known each other 20 years there isn’t a story of mine he hasn’t heard many times and vice versa. He rolls his eyes at this one in particular because of the mix of humble-brag and pure ruthlessness it displays — but he’s a storyteller, too, and I think he knows what I mean by telling it. Storytelling is a magical, ruthless discipline. The people who tell stories are often tempted to create a hierarchy in their lives, in which stories come before everything else, including people. Part of my anxiety about storytelling is an awareness of that monomaniacal part of me that is willing to wrestle a little girl to the ground in order to preserve the integrity of a story. I know that part of me exists, but I really try to suppress it, because I want to find an accommodation between telling stories about life and living it well. In this accommodation, no one and no story can compare with Nick, who is every bit as ruthlessly dedicated to writing as I am, but who has besides a capacity for love and kindness that I know I will spend my lifetime trying to equal. Without you, I would not be telling stories all — I’d just be kicking little girls in the face. The luckiest thing that happened to me — besides becoming a professional storyteller — is marrying one, and as I don’t often get a chance to say thank you publically, I wanted to do so now. Thank you.

related: zadie smith on “creativity and refusal” | the most splendiferous 7 minutes of your day

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“storytelling is a magical, ruthless discipline”

05/17/14 1 Comment

zadie smith on “creativity and refusal”

08/06/13 4 Comments

zadie smithin the essay “creativity and refusal”, author zadie smith explores creativity (the word itself + its application today) and how refusing to conform to norms (or refusing to rebel) comes into play.  with it, she adds some new perspective into how we should view music, design, literature, technology, & other “creative” elements of everyday life.  read it below (via the 12th international literature festival of rome) and discuss any points that stand out to you:

I have been asked to talk to you this evening of “creativity.” It’s one of those slippery words, popular with the organizers of literary events, and I confess I stared at it a long time without gaining any traction. ‘Identity’ is another word of the same type. We must have a genuine need for such terms – we use them so often – but like a pair of well-loved shoes they’ve worn right down to the soles, and now tend to let in more than they keep out. ‘Creativity’ has had an especially long fall from grace. If you pick up the modern culture dictionary Keywords, by the British Marxist critic Raymond Williams, you can trace its decline. As he tells it, ‘creation’ begins life as a prerogative of the gods (as in Augustine’s maxim ‘creatura non potest creare’; the creature who has been created cannot himself create) from which height it descends, in the sixteenth century, into a synonym for “counterfeit”, or “imitation.”  “Or art thou,” asks Macbeth, “But/A dagger of the mind, a false creation/proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?” For the Elizabethans, whatever was ‘natural’ was the truth. Whatever was created in the minds of men was in some sense secondary, suspect. Which faint stain of shame lasted a long time – even the Romantics were not entirely free of it. More recently, Williams argues, we use the word to disguise from ourselves the fact that the arts are dominated not by innovation or originality but by “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” In other words: we like to think the ‘creative arts’ represent a form of rebellion against the way of things, but more often than not they reinforce the status quo. The most painful bit comes at the end: “The difficulty arises when a word once intended, and often still intended, to embody a high and serious claim, becomes so conventional…Thus any imitative or stereotyped literary work can be called, by convention, creative writing, and advertising copywriters officially describe themselves as creative.”

I suppose it is in this last, loosest, sense that I most often hear the word used in my adopted city, New York. A young woman at a party will proudly tell you she works in ‘creative branding.’ The man whose job it is to rid our apartment of cockroaches speaks of finding a ‘creative solution to the problem.’  The marketing department of any large company is considered its ‘creative hub.’ As I write these words it is officially ‘Creative Week’ in New York (“Where advertising, design, and digital media collide with the arts.”) In Manhattan, when a person is described as ‘creative’ it usually means they’ve found a particularly ingenious way to sell you something.

The other place I hear the word a lot, unsurprisingly, is behind the door of 58 West 10th street, where I teach in a Creative Writing program. There, ‘creative’ has transformed from adjective to noun. “I knew from the earliest age,” writes a student, in her application letter, “that I was destined to be a Creative.” In its Sunday supplements, the New York Times regularly tortures my students with lavish articles about the fantasy lifestyle of this person, the ‘Creative.’ She lives in Brooklyn, sits in cafés with a laptop, makes her own hours, and is answerable to no-one. I wouldn’t begrudge any young person this entirely reasonable desire (although personally I have never typed a single creative word in a café) but I sometimes wonder whether it is creative writing itself or this advertised lifestyle that is the main attraction. To create something, as the Gods knew, requires a certain boldness. But though my students are excellent readers and sometimes brilliant intellectually what they write is often, at first, oddly timid. It is writing that aims to please; specifically writing that seeks to fill some perceived niche in the literary market. Often this niche is characterized by that other slippery word ‘identity.’ I heard Salman Rushdie claim recently that the most important advice he can think to give to young Asian writers these days is the following:  “There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes, no guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.” Just because Asian novels are the fashion you needn’t make a fetish of yourself. Or to put it another way: it is not creative to let the logic of the market into your mind. One of the virtues of novel-writing is, or used to be, its relative independence. Unlike movies or television you do not need to please a committee or get a green light before you set out to write. But what if the phantom committee has been internalized? Sometimes students can seem more attuned to the chatter of publishing PR departments than whatever is going on in their own minds. They plan on penning the ‘Next Great Post-Colonial Novel’ or a ‘Multi-Generational Epic’ or a ‘Delicate Canadian Historical Drama.” At the end of a semester, not long ago, a student asked me: “How did you choose your literary brand?”

Most of my time with students is spent trying to press upon them the idea that creativity is about something more than finding the perfect audience for the perfect product. To my mind, a true ‘Creative’ should not simply seek to satisfy a pre-existing demand but instead transform our notion of what it is we want. A work of art forms its own necessary audience, creates its own taste. In this sense, at the heart of creativity lies a refusal. For a genuinely creative piece of work always declines to see the world as others see it, or as it is commonly described. It refuses received notions and generalities  – it “makes new.” Sometimes this forced change of perspective provokes delight, and a Creative should count herself extremely lucky if that turns out to be the case. But she should also prepare herself for the more usual reactions: discomfort, distaste, confusion, shock – even anger. The genuinely new rarely slips easily into the world-as-it-is. It causes at least a little friction. But I find it’s difficult to cultivate and encourage in students – especially American students – a willingness to risk displeasure. They are brought up on the principle of supply and demand, of entertainers and audience. As antidote, early on in our time together, I assign Kafka, in the hope it will embolden them. Kafka being the type of Creative whose creativity was not rooted in the need for approval. A man for whom creativity itself was a form of refusal.

*

This is all happening at the high end of the creative industry – my students being the type of kids whose parents don’t mind dropping sixty grand on a writing program. Meanwhile, down at the other end, the urban youth of New York, in particular the young African-Americans, do not require Creative Week to be creative. Their fashion, their language, their music, their visual arts – all are a source of constant innovation. Not one but two entire art forms – jazz and hip-hop – have risen up from this minority community within one century. (Not to mention the various subset activities these art-forms have spawned: bebop, funk, spoken word poetry, street art, break-dancing, scratching, beat-boxing.) But – as is often the way in America – all the way at the other end of the class ladder you find a strange mirroring of what happens at the top. The sad state of contemporary Hip-Hop is an obvious example. The creative energy is still there, as it was at Hip-Hop’s inception, but so is a new keenness to be co-opted, monetized. Once an underground, resistant culture, now rappers speak enthusiastically of “becoming a brand.” Happily they make deals with sportswear manufacturers and perfume companies, hawk high-end drinks in their videos, and lend their hard-won aura of authenticity to various aspects of the socio-economic status quo. Some of these gestures are as old as the hills. The surest sign of a successful rapper, for example, is his willingness to rap a verse over the anodyne pop song of a white starlet. She sings; he raps; she tries to dance; he stands behind her, looking impressed. If you squint it looks no different than that old tap dancer Bill Robinson clapping his hands and grinning as Shirley Temple dances in front of him. The black artist lends authenticity to the white star; the white star legitimizes the black artist. The music may have changed but the deep structure remains the same.

Such cultural repetitions make me nervous; they are primarily nostalgic, and nostalgia is the enemy of creativity, and the driving force behind “ideological and hegemonic reproduction.” Over and over in Hip-Hop we see what began as a creative refusal of the mainstream culture ending up as its support act. We used to call this ‘selling out’. Now it’s called ‘consolidating your brand.’ Rappers themselves like to argue that “getting paper” (making money) is itself a creative act of rebellion against the socio-economic status quo in America. But there seems to me a qualitative difference between monetizing the end product and monetizing the process itself, a line between selling a record and selling yourself. I confess it depressed me to hear that a rap collective as innovative as the LA-based Odd Future recently signed on to make an advert for the soft drink Mountain Dew. Not to star in it, mind you, but to actually design and direct it. (I was later cheered to hear their efforts were too offensive for the company to use.) To think of your creativity as a brand – or as at the service of a brand – is to build into the creative process the consistency and audience approval that products require. It is to think of yourself as product. And products cannot refuse their buyers. The whole point of a product is to slot into the world-as-it-is, seamlessly.

*

I grew up in the age of grunge and refusal, the tail-end of that generation of people who still feel sad when they see Iggy Pomp in a TV advert for car insurance or Bob Dylan in a deal with Starbucks. I was fifteen when Kurt Cobain killed himself. I was raised on the idea that there is a deadly tension between creativity and the market. I imagine that for the generation under me this idea of the ‘sell-out’ is considered as sentimental and impractical as those other 60’s throwbacks like free love and peace on earth. They grew up largely unmolested by the fear that the logic of the market is in any way in conflict with the act of creation. This must partly be because they grew up in a world of digital technology in which the seamlessness of creativity and capital is real. What is Apple if not “creativity” and “brand” working together in perfect synergy? Perhaps I should be teaching students about the creativity of Steve Jobs rather than Kafka? But here we get to the limits of this word ‘creativity.’ For though I may, on occasion, be so in love with my iPhone as to call it “a work of art,” the creativity embedded within it is of a different kind than the creativity that brought “In the Penal Colony” into existence, and I think it a little dangerous to confuse the two. The ultimate purpose of creativity in technology is to be frictionless, in form and function. Its final aim is not to challenge but to facilitate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – a tool, if its working well, should feel simply like an extension of us, and should work in the same way and equally well for every soul who picks it up. We get used to tools – they become invisible to us (Unless we happen to be hackers or especially technologically literate.) The creativity of art, by contrast, is something we never ‘get used to.’ I read “In the Penal Colony” every year with my students and every year it is a new kind of provocation, a challenge to the way I think and behave, to the things I claim I believe. The creativity of art is different from the creativity of tools: it forces us to be active in the face of it and always individual. Your reading of Kafka will not be the same as mine, but both of us will use our iPhones in much the same way. Still, it’s true that in the world of creative technology each new iteration of hardware or software does induce a jolt in us – forcing us to see our world differently, not unlike a work of art – and certainly for a day or two, or even a month, we may find ourselves confounded by some element of a new design, or refusing it outright (as is happening presently with Google Glass, which, in America, is being preemptively banned and legislated against in various contexts.) But very soon, almost sooner than we realize, we get used to the new design, whatever it is, and it begins to become invisible to us, we cannot imagine it was ever any other way.

The iPad, the iPhone et al – these may be an expression of Steve Jobs’ creativity, but they are also products, and for all the talk of revolutionary freedom in the adverts, all those billboards of Einstein and Hendrix above the slogan ‘Think Different’, Apple the company slipped seamlessly into the world-as-it-is, with all its iniquities, as we learnt when stories of work conditions in the Foxconn factory in China began to surface. To really ‘think differently’ necessitates some kind of refusal, and products – no matter how beautifully designed – simply do not have that freedom; they exist only to please, which is why Jobs’ creative brand utopia is not an especially good model for creative artists. It feels important to insist that when I say “I don’t know how I ever lived without my iPhone” (and I say it all the time) I am not speaking of the same kind of creative experience as when I say: “I was a different person before I read – and re-read -“In the Penal Colony.”

*

However, there is something very important the digital era has to teach young Creatives: un-sentimentality. A passion for the new. Technology is fundamentally un-nostalgic and young people who want to be creative would do well to cultivate this instinct. In my experience, fighting nostalgia, as an artist, is a full time job. Never more so than when I lived in Italy, which seems to me to be a country perversely designed to make you feel both awe at the cultural achievements of the past and a great doubt that you could ever add to them yourself. It’s not so easy to paint in the city of Michelangelo, nor to make music in the land of Verdi, or write sentences in the shadow of Dante. If ever there was a country over-burdened by a legacy of creativity, it’s Italy. Of course, a great cultural history can also be a wonderful advantage to a young Creative; the better you know your own cultural history, as TS Eliot argued, the less likely you are to repeat it in a formulaic or dull manner. Nostalgia may be the enemy of creativity – but history, properly understood, is its friend. When I lived here I always felt that the young creative people of Italy were in some sense deprived access to the full greatness of their cultural history by a conservative mass media that curiously insists on its nostalgic aspects; that insists, for example, that the 50s and 60s in Rome represent the very pinnacle of modern Italian life, never to be forgotten or equaled. Alberto Sordi and Anna Magnani movies play in rotation on the television; the chat shows continually reminisce about the good old days, and there are so many magazine articles about Agnelli you’d think he was still alive. There’s something deliberately soporific about all that, as if an older generation refuses to get out of the way to allow the flowering of something new. I think a young Creative has to learn to be a little ruthless about the past, and that can be hard to do in a culture preoccupied with heritage. Surely one of the reasons young Creatives from around the globe flock to New York is that city’s impatience with nostalgia. The town seems to change week by week; old buildings are torn down, new ones arrive. No doubt it’s brutal, but it’s what makes it a city on the side of the young. It’s always looking ahead, never sentimental about what came before.

*

I should confess before I finish that I don’t think of myself as particularly creative. At best I am a good synthesizer, someone who, in Eliot’s sense, reorganizes and rearranges the materials of the past. If I am occasionally able to ‘make it new’ this is wholly due to this tendency towards refusal I’ve been trying to describe. As a child, born into a certain class, into a particular race and gender, my first creative act was to refuse, in various ways, the destiny England thought it had in store for me. My writing springs from this same instinct. Even if my publishers print my name in the same font on the covers of all my books, I still want what is inside to be free to mutate, transform and surprise, and otherwise fundamentally disturb a ‘brand.’ I like writing that is inconsistent and a little unruly. And like all creative writers, I want to rescue this word ‘creative’ from its recent devaluation. Because there’s something vital and radical about the creative arts, when they’re good. They’re not just well-designed tools or beautiful products, they’re experiences, in which space is made for you to wrangle with what you are offered, re-interpret it, or refuse it, in an ongoing and unique engagement. They may be sold as product but they can refuse the form and identity of products. And in their habit of creative refusal they can encourage a broader creative refusal that may actually have some teeth to it.

What if the most creative thing we can do right now is refuse? Show ourselves not content to slot our energies into the smooth running of the present order? Imagining the world other than it is feels like a creative duty right now, and everywhere you look a principle of refusal seems to be taking hold. The Internet activists ‘Anonymous’ refuse an identity at all, while the global Occupy movement also took the form of a refusal: the refusal to name leaders or even policies. Your recent election here in Italy bore some traces of this same legacy: the refusal of business as usual. And we’re beginning to see artists refusing ‘content providers’ all together – bypassing publishers, record companies and TV stations in creative and interesting ways. The end of the financial order, or of the political order, or of a certain version of the cultural and media industries – we were always warned that when these familiar certainties collapsed, anarchy would follow, anarchy being the refusal of everything. We have been taught to fear it – but the moment is upon us and why should it be purely nihilistic? It might be the most creative thing to happen to us in a long time.

related: behind kanye’s mask 31 days of creativity with food | “in the penal colony” by franz kafka

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