We need to talk about Zadie Smith.
The other day I was on a Skype meeting with two other writers who are working to birth their first novels. Each of us has had success as writers. Myself as a memoirist and ghostwriter. Another as a journalist and food reviewer. And the third as a creative writing professor and short story author. And yet we are all pushing 40, or a tad past it, without reaching the place in our careers where we can sit back and say, “Aha. Made it.”
One of the writers, the short story author, commented on the call, “I just look at White Teeth…”
As soon as the title is out of her mouth, a part of me groans. It’s not in critique of Madame Smith’s prodigious opus. No one could argue with its merit, but for over 20 years now, I have heard way too many writers reference it, not as a literary masterpiece, but as the literary masterpiece they failed to write.
For us Gen X writers, we came of age in the time of Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers. Young writers anointed with the holy grail of commercial and literary success. Both of them attractive and charismatic. Both of them very, very cool.
We grew up in their shadows, taking our turns at writing versions of White Teeth and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. We waited for the literati to arrive on our doorstep, offering tickets to black tie affairs and meetings with Sebastian Junger in the back of his bar.
But we published, or more often, submitted to silence. We had to pay the bills somehow, so we cooled our heels in other industries. I began in book publishing, and ended in non-profits after a brief but brutal turn working for Judith Regan. My other friends have spent their time working as chefs, ghostwriters, teachers, receptionists….
But none of us stopped writing, even as we watched another generation come up under us. And these kids, wooey, they were different. They didn’t wait for anyone to knock on their door, they went out and built their own fanbases. They built the goddamn internet, and not merely as a tool with which to be sold shit, but a tool with which to sell their own.
This new generation created platforms and followers and marketing strategies, and so much content, you wondered if the world was, finally, after so many millennia, going to run out of ideas.
We watched in wonder as we continued to rewrite that novel. As we workshopped and got more degrees (as though we really needed another degree) and attended book signings with Zadie Smith where we nervously handed over our business card because it said writer, hoping she would agree (guilty as charged!).
The tough part is we failed to see that the system we kept trying to get into was now dead.
The old way of writing the Great American Novel to be plucked from obscurity into literary glory was long gone.
People plucked themselves.
As I found out even when you’ve been plucked, you have to keep plucking.
When I wrote my first book, I realized that success is incremental. I had to celebrate the small victories (finishing a chapter, creating a blog). And then the big ones started to come (landing an agent, getting a publisher). By the time the Emmy-winning producer and the famous actress were attached, I knew that I couldn’t wait for the TV show to be in awe of the process. I found myself in a mid-century conference room with all these important people as they developed a pitch about my life, and as an LA sunny day shined through the window, I thought this might just be enough.
But then it wasn’t. Instead, I watched as other people’s TV shows got made. I watched as they published second (and even third books) to greater acclaim. I saw them become their own versions of Zadie Smith.
And I got a full-time job. I became a mother. I checked off a lot of other boxes, but I once again bought into the belief that I was just a name in a hat that would never be picked.
Whenever someone asks what was the happiest moment of my life (and they haven’t yet), I would say it was the night of the my book publishing party. Because though the day my children were born was awesome, I had also just delivered 9 pound turkeys out of my vajajay. Publishing a book is pretty much the same thing but with all the joy and no blood. I fought for my first book. I made it the little engine that could. I became its fiercest advocate. Because even though the story was mine, the minute it’s out there in the world - whether that’s because it’s been published or you’re workshopping it or your mom just read it - it’s not yours anymore (also like children).
And the more I paid attention to other people’s stories – including Zadie Smith’s – the less I could figure out how to tell my own.
I realized that for the last ten years, a lot of writers in my generation felt silenced by their perceived failure. “Well, if you haven’t made it yet,” was the motto of our own dispirited talents. But lately, I have noticed a sea change.
“I just feel like I can’t give up,” one of my workshop partners says with a fierceness that I recognize.
For years, we (and I mean an entire generation) had slowly been giving up. We took the full-time job. Some of us became mothers – or fathers. We ceded the floor to Zadie and Dave and all those social media influencing Millennials.
But then Gen X remembered, we had something to say.
For years, I have been working as a ghostwriter, and I know that writer’s block is just a synonym for not writing. Because if you’re a writer, once you start writing, you really can’t stop.
Which is why the fastest way to write a book is to write a book. The more you compare, explain, procrastinate, the more you separate yourself from the page. The only thing that stands in the way of your story is words. Not kids. Not your full-time job. Not your fears. Go find the words and the rest will become background noise to the humming rhythm of your fingers on the keyboard. And over time, you will no longer be translating your thoughts and feelings, you will be transmitting them.
And it won’t matter if it’s the next White Teeth. It won’t matter whether it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.
It’s yours, and once you share it, it’s the world’s. And that is all we ever really needed to make it.