Write, one sentence at a time

For 75 minutes Wednesday night, a room in the Newport Beach Public Library became author Zadie Smith's classroom.

She read her essay "Why Write?" — originally composed for her students — to a crowd of 200 gathered for the ticketed event hosted by the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation.

The New York University professor began by imagining what audience members feel at the start of a lecture: Instantly impatient, they look toward the podium to see how thick the stack of lecture notes might be. They wonder how long the speech will last. While the speaker's hands tremble, the audience members squirm.

"Don't worry, I know the feeling," Smith acknowledged outright, describing the hypothetical situation.

Her own audience seemed nevertheless to be listening with rapt attention as she picked apart the question that is the title of the lecture, drawing from the likes of 18th-century poet Alexander Pope, Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov and political satirist George Orwell to explore the relationships between writers and themselves, between writers and their audiences, and between writers and reality.

She made no mention of her own award-winning novels, "White Teeth," "The Autograph Man" and "On Beauty." Nor did she discuss her essays for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books or any other publication. She didn't need to list her resume: Her talent shone shown through her sentences as she read.

"I've been wishing for this night for five years," said foundation board member Connie Glenn, who introduced Smith to the full room.

Smith spoke as part of the Witte Lecture Series organized by the foundation. These lectures usually occur once a month, January through April.

When Smith's agent alerted the foundation that she would be in California at the end of October, though, the selection committee knew it could not pass up the opportunity to host a speaker who had long been on their wish list, said Tracy Keys, the foundation's executive director.

So they booked her to speak, raised money from sponsors and started to advertise the event.

And while Smith didn't mention her work explicitly during the lecture, she did apply her perspective as both a writer and a reader to her discourse.

Smith noted that many recognize the angst often associated with the profession. To stave off this fear, she concluded, one must focus on the singular sentence.

This is her technique, and this is all a writer can do to ward off feelings of hopelessness, according to the famed author.

After all, she asked, what could feel more silly than sitting down to write a novel?

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