Ali Smith’s "quite lazy" writing routine

"I spend lots of time staring into space and wandering around the room."

Welcome to the latest issue of Subtle Maneuvers. Previously, we chatted with Susan Chen about painting in a pandemic.


Ali Smith (b. 1962)

Today is the Scottish novelist’s 57th birthday, and tomorrow is the publication day for her latest novel, Summer, which completes the acclaimed quartet of seasonal novels that she began in 2017. That same year, Smith told the Paris Review about her daily routine: She usually goes to bed at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and gets up at about 9:00 a.m. Once she’s up and about, she doesn’t start writing immediately. “If I’m not writing to meet a deadline, I tend to spend the mornings doing admin—emails and stuff—and then start writing about two or three in the afternoon and work through until about eight or nine,” Smith said. “I’m quite lazy, though. I spend lots of time staring into space and wandering around the room, picking things up, opening books, putting them down again.”

(Actually, I’d argue that this doesn’t make Smith “lazy” at all, but rather quite typical—many, many writers have talked about working in this very same way. Smith’s “staring into space and wandering around the room” reminds me in particular of Iris Murdoch’s writing process.)

Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, which began with the novel Autumn in 2017

When Smith is on a deadline, she might get to work earlier than her typical midafternoon start time; for her 2014 novel How to Be Both, she would wake up at 7:00 a.m. and do two hours of research before transitioning to writing. That novel is divided into two narratives, one concerning a 15th-century painter, and Smith was skim-reading books about the Renaissance to flesh out her fictional world. Normally, however, she doesn’t do any research for her fiction. Indeed, novel-writing usually prevents her from doing much of anything else. “When I'm working on a novel, that novel acts like a giant hoover and everything gravitates towards it,” Smith said in a 2015 interview. “I become its daily routine—I need tricks to distract myself! To be able to do things like sleep, have baths, eat, do the dishes.”

Although her books are celebrated for their exuberant wit and playfulness, Smith doesn’t find that the writing process itself feels like play. “Actually, it’s work—it’s really work,” she told the Paris Review. “When you have to produce something, and you know you’ll get paid for it, then that’s why you do it, because it pays the mortgage.” At the same time, however, writing—when it’s successful—is the opposite of paying the mortgage. “The things in life which try to pin us down are the things we have to try to work against,” Smith said in 2015. “That’s what the novel can do, that’s what art can do. You never know what you’re going to end up with when you sit down to write something. At the end, if it holds, it can do this multifarious thing—which is to open things rather than close them, to make them bigger rather than smaller, to cross those divides which we live every day of our lives.”

Ali Smith in 2015. Photo: Felicity McCabe for the New Statesman


SELECTED ALI SMITH QUOTES, VIA @ALISMITHBOT

“THE OPPOSITE OF PRODUCTIVITY”

Strongly agree with this series of tweets by the novelist Lauren Groff!

And I think Groff’s point applies not only to writing a book but to painting, composing, making a work of choreography, or any other ambitious long-term creative project.


ROUTINE, RITUAL, EULOGY

I was delighted to be a guest on the latest episode of Subject, Object, Verb, the writer and musician Ross Simonini’s excellent new podcast for Art Review. Tune in to hear me read some Daily Rituals excerpts, plus Natalie Labriola on the history of female mystic artists, Candice Lin’s surreal eulogy to a feral cat, new music from Astral Oracles and Sam Gendel, and David Lynch’s daily weather report. Find it on your podcasts app or at ArtReview.com/podcasts.


WRIGGLING THROUGH 🐛

The advice column returns next Monday! Send me your creative dilemmas and I’ll do my best to provide some concrete advice based on my research into great minds’ work habits.

Email Me

(Read my past advice here.)


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