Dani Shapiro
November 5, 2009

On Being Smart

Over the weekend, I was talking with a friend about a particular writer who shall remain unnamed here for reasons which will soon become clear. She’s published quite a lot of books–fiction, essays, polemics–and in this case, we were discussing her fiction, which isn’t, in my opinion, very good.

“She’s a particular kind of too smart to be a good fiction writer,” I said.

My friend nodded in agreement. That was it. Too smart.

I’ve told my students for years that we need to be dumb like animals in order to write good fiction. What do I mean by this? To try to understand what I mean, I’ve been looking at my two dogs resting by my feet for the last few minutes. They’re relaxed but alert. Their ears are pricked, their bodies loosely spilled onto the floor, their eyes are open. They’re ready for anything–ready to leap to their feet at the slightest provocation. They see, smell, hear, taste, touch everything in their environment–or at least I think they do–but from a place of calm attention.

That kind of relaxed attention has a lot to do with writing good fiction. If I am thinking too hard, or too much–if I am layering thoughts and suppositions on top of the tender, frail beginning of story before I’ve barely begun, what I end up with is a collapsing heap of abstraction. When a writer is too smart for her own good, you can feel the weight of her thoughts on the page, like a truck straining uphill. You experience the author’s mental exertion, rather than the story itself.

The best writers, of course, are able to do both: feel and sniff their way through a story like a sure-footed animal through a thicket, and then, but only then, once there is a draft on the page, they’re able to think about it. To become first, willfully sensate and dumb like an animal, and then to become smart, lucid, clear-headed when approaching revision. We all know writers who are good at one or the other. The best writers are good at both.

It’s so easy to forget this. To think: I need to write something clever, something ironic, something The New Yorker might like. To think: but what’s the big picture? I need to know the big picture before I begin. The paradox of the big picture is that it’s only revealed one tiny picture, one small moment at a time.