One way to conquer writer’s block


After 9/11, Jane Smiley developed a serious case of writer’s block. “I found myself unable,” the 1992 Pulitzer-Prize winner said at last night’s Seminary Co-op book talk, “to go on writing my dry little novel about deregulation.” She retreated to her room and the solace of reading books as distant as possible in time and place from the contemporary horrors. But instead of finding the escape from reality she had hoped for, Smiley said, “I began to see that these books, as old as they were, were relevant” to today’s world.

Beginning with The Tale of Genji, Smiley eventually read 100 fictional works, including Icelandic sagas, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and turned the project into her 12th and latest novel, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (Knopf). In the meantime she finished Good Faith (Knopf, 2003), the book she’d left in the lurch. All that reading “charged me up,” Smiley said. “It made me want to read more and more. I came away thinking, what can I read now?” It also made her realize that “there’s no greatest novel,” she said. “There are no greater novels. There are only novels that you like or don’t like, novels that you feel a kinship with” or don’t. Her experiences sparked a desire to try new things with her writing, such as “lingering” more on descriptions of people and scenes. “I won’t always feel the plot nudging me from behind, saying, ‘Move, move, move,’” she said, adding that the true test of what she’s learned will be her next novel.

After the Q&A session, which Smiley called her “favorite part” of a book talk, urging the audience to help her “more fully bake” the “half-baked” ideas in Thirteen Ways, she finished with an excerpt. “It’s worth knowing that serious thoughts are being thought, and also that serious fun is being made of fools everywhere,” Smiley read. “It’s also worth knowing, in dangerous times, that dangers have come and gone and we still have these books.”

Hana Yoo, '07

Photo: Jane Smiley

September 21, 2005