Storytelling Is A Magical, Ruthless Discipline
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.
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.
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.
The unlikeliest story of my life is the one about the girl from Willesden who found readers in the United States.
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.
Everything I’d built, all my new friends, indeed, my sense of my own value — all of it seemed dependent on this ridiculous story.
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.
Storytelling is a magical, ruthless discipline.
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.
© Zadie Smith
Founded in 1997 by George Dawes Greene, The Moth is an acclaimed not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.
Photo credit: PATRICKMCMULLAN.COM