Reading Matters

Lee Smith: Writing is ‘a lot of fooling around’

Years ago – I mean years ago – I drove to Chapel Hill to interview novelist Lee Smith. Her recent memoir, ‘Dimestore,’ was far in her future. Her 1988 novel, “Fair and Tender Ladies,” published a couple of years before the interivew, had propelled her into the mainstream of American literature. But Smith was melancholy, as her mother had recently died. This cold January morning we talked of writers needing time to write and how to get that time. And how important it is to let your mind play and make connections.

Here’s what she said about writing as play and writing and time.

“I suppose one reason I really like writing -- and although a lot of what I write is very, very serious – what you do when you write is you let your mind play. You let yourself go to make connections. You let yourself not do the dishes or get the oil changed in your car. I think a lot of just fooling around is necessary for a writer.

“And play is in a sense the wrong term, because a lot of play is very serious. But it’s very necessary. And I’ve taught enough to have run into people who are wonderful writers, and the circumstances of their lives are ot allowing them to write right now. And it kills me.

“I do not believe the theory that somebody who’s going to be a writer is going to write no matter what. People have responsibilities. That’s why figuring out how to get the time is one of the most important things for a writer.

“Some people at a girls’ school last year got really mad at me, because they asked me on this panel what these girls should do if they wanted to be writers, and I said, ‘Marry a surgeon.’ They all got furious. But it’s true. Or else teach. That’s why we all teach because we can get semesters off, we have summers off. Heck, we have three weeks at Christmas!”