How Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith Use Technology: An Excerpt From ‘Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors’


Need a hit of inspiration? In Sarah Stodola‘s fascinating new book Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors, we see what drives genius. Whether it’s “autodidacts,” “nine-to-fivers,” or “slow and steady,” among others, Stodola takes an intimate and well-researched look inside the habits and traditions of 18 of your favorite writers (including David Foster Wallace, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, and George Orwell), habits that have led to the production of some of our greatest canonical works. Process goes on shelves (and online) January 20th.

Read an exclusive preview, which looks at Margaret Atwood and Zadie Smith’s very different approaches to technology and the Internet’s role their writing, below.

From Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors:

Chapter 17: Margaret Atwood

At age sixteen, Atwood seemingly out of nowhere realized she wanted to be a writer, and with the decision made, she never looked back. The origin story is simple: One day while walking home from school, Atwood was struck with an idea. “I wrote a poem in my head and then I wrote it down, and after that writing was the only thing I wanted to do.” This also marked the moment that she became more high-minded about her reading, although to this day she still enjoys a good murder mystery in her down time.

During the first decade or so of her writing career, certain authors had a clear influence on Atwood’s own work. George Orwell helped inspire her taste for dystopias, along with Brave New World and Darkness at Noon. She read 1984 as an adolescent, a few years after it came out in 1949, around the same time she discovered Edgar Allan Poe, E. Nesbit, and Andrew Lang’s folktales. Sweeping English novels like George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights also had an early impact.

Atwood is steeped in classic literature, but she also appreciates more contemporary media. She sees the Internet not as the writer’s enemy, but simply as the next medium of expression in a line of them dating back to handwritten letters and the telegram. Atwood keeps a frequently updated website, created a stand-alone website to experiment with marketing and audience engagement for her novel The Year of the Flood, and for a while kept a blog on WordPress (not updated since 2012). “I particularly like Twitter,” she says of the platform on which she has almost half a million followers, “because it’s short and can be very funny and informative.”

Atwood has also shown an eagerness to experiment with her fiction online—“I always try everything,” she says. She wrote a short story for the digital-only publisher Byliner in 2012, then upon seeing its popularity agreed to continue the story, turning it into a serialized novel on that site. She incorporated feedback from published chapters into the direction of subsequent chapters. And—no surprise—she received much of that feedback via Twitter. She also collaborated with another author, Naomi Alderman, on a zombie novel called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, distributed on the self-publishing app Wattpad.

Despite embracing the Internet, though, Atwood recognizes the need to manage one’s time spent on it. She limits her Twitter time to ten minutes per day, and perhaps even more tellingly, she has two desks in the writing room she keeps in her Toronto home, one with a computer hooked up to the Internet, one with a disconnected machine.

She says, “In order to actually finish a novel I have to isolate myself from all distraction because if it’s a question of a choice between the work and the distraction I’ll take the distraction every time.”This kind of discipline—and recognition of its necessity—in part explains why Atwood is usually a fast worker. Early in her career, she ambitiously tried but mostly failed to work through ten pages per day. By the time of a 1990 interview with The Paris Review, Atwood had settled into a routine in which one to two thousand words in a day is considered productive, anything less a letdown of sorts.

Chapter 18: Zadie Smith

Smith also attributes her slow progress in part to her habit of starting every working day by reading what she’s already written, editing as she goes, before adding new text to the novel. “It’s incredibly laborious,” she says, “and toward the end of a long novel it’s intolerable actually.”

The bright side of this approach is that when she reaches the end of the novel, she’s done with it: “If you edit as you go along, there are no first, second, third drafts. There is only one draft, and when it’s done, it’s done.” It’s an approach that a writer of a century ago wouldn’t recognize as physically possible—it’s an option only available to the writer in the age of the computer.

When she’s writing, Smith prefers a small room with little natural light, the blinds drawn to close out the daylight. Books are strewn across her desk. She generally does her best work in the afternoons. She makes great effort to restrict her access to the Internet during her writing hours. Smith, in fact, does not believe in the redeeming qualities of the Internet as it exists today (Web 2.0, social media, etc.).

On a personal level, she finds the Internet dangerously addictive. Smith joined Facebook and quickly quit it, horrified by its ability to eat up her time. “With Facebook hours, afternoons, entire days went by without my noticing,” she says of her time on it. Unlike a writer like Margaret Atwood, Smith also dislikes the kind of instantaneous feedback that putting work online elicits. “I think constant feedback is not a very healthy thing for a writer,” she says.

Nor does she feel it’s healthy on a social level, as she wrote in a 2010 essay for The New York Review of Books: “In Facebook, as it is with other online social networks, life is turned into a database, and this is a degradation . . . We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them.” Smith doesn’t qualify as a social butterfly, but she likes people, and she likes to keep her relationships with them in the physical realm, feels they are more properly human there. Eventually, she employed the Internet-blocking programs Freedom and SelfControl to force her off websites and into her Word document. They proved so helpful that she thanked the programs in the acknowledgments of NW “for creating the time.”