words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

fifth letter

Dear aburo,

It is an accident of classification that writers think of themselves simply as writers. Writing is the specialised tool through which something happens but that “something” is superior to the form of its expression, and it is held (or sought) in common with those who have different ways of expressing it. It is almost too obvious to need saying, yet we so often lose sight of it that it does have to be said: artists, in whatever medium, are after the same thing. All artists are after that thing that resists expression.

If you remember your secondary school biology, you’ll recall a little bit of the mechanism of gene expression. The form of the genetic material—in the case of humans the twinned strands of DNA—is constant. The polymers are organised into a double helix. It is the information carried in that DNA, the genes, that are expressed differently. When I sit down to create a story, my concerns are expressive: I use words, I listen for the rhythm of sentences, I check my grammar and pacing, and so on. But I’m also trying to find the structure of the DNA of that particular story, trying to identify its double helix.

As a young writer and—in fact, as a writer of any age—I think it is essential to find out what you can learn from other arts; your talent cannot exist in isolation any more than a human being can live healthily on one type of food alone. What arts you choose to learn from are up to you. In approaching them, however, you will find that your vision is sometimes obscured by the form of the art itself.

For instance, one might hear music simply and purely as music, as if it responded to nothing more than musical demands. And a painting, one that truly commands our attention, can sometimes seem an epitome of the discipline, unrelated to anything outside painting itself. What I try to do in my work is to find out how the gestures of various arts can be smuggled beyond their native borders, music that exceeds music, painting that exceeds painting.

A while ago, I suggested to you that a novel is first and foremost a response to one having read other novels, that novel-writing exists within a tradition. Let me suggest further that a novel is also the result of having paid attention to other arts. It is a concept that can be expanded infinitely, for what we call originality is little more than the fine blending of influences. No one is going to lay claim to having discovered the use of colour to show elation, or expressing sorrow by means of pacing, or the peculiar thrill of unfolding a thematic element and varying it.

These are artistic tricks that are as old as art itself. So, for now, let me simply show what I mean with some brief examples, in the hope that you will apply the concept elsewhere as you see fit. Take the sonata form, which emerged in the late eighteenth century as a way of shaping a piece of instrumental music. In listening to Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert, what your ear is picking out is, in part, a four-part division. There’s exposition (you declare the main melody), development (you do interesting harmonic things with that melody, taking it in different directions), recapitulation (a repeat of the exposition, but in altered form) and the coda (you end with something that is both fresh and connected to the original melody).

A writer could definitely make use of this in shaping a long-form work. I think of sonatas when I am writing the small stories that need to fit into the texture of the overarching bigger story. Those small stories, like the musical fragments embedded in a sonata, must be harmonically connected. Let’s say you’re writing a book about a war. War represents a broken compact between communities. This theme could be subtly developed with the story of complicated love affairs, in other words, through a smaller scale examination of broken relationships.

And then, perhaps, a character at one point in the novel drops and breaks her glasses. Not, mind you, a sacred calabash or an expensive vase: you have to be careful not to overload the symbolic weight. In any case, the glasses break, the relationship founders, perhaps, and a new relationship forms; and all along the war goes on. You imbue your novel with this hidden music of breakage and restoration. You could even spin it in a humorous direction, and have a character speak broken English. No one needs to know you were thinking of sonata form when you wrote all that.

From film, meanwhile, one can learn a great deal about editing. Writers tend to go on and on, because paper is cheap. But film is expensive, and so filmmakers have learned the discipline of leaving extraneous bits on the cutting-room floor. A twenty-page chapter is good, it is the standard thing; but if need be, write a two-page chapter: cut into the scene, cut out of it, and be done with it. Michael Ondaatje is someone who does this very effectively: before the film of The English Patient was made, the novel itself was already like a great film, sharply edited, each scene at once luscious and slim.

It’s worth learning how to move the “camera” of your mind’s eye over a written scene, taking note of what a camera would see: the lighting, the small movements, the seemingly insignificant things. Then the decisive action happens and, gbosa, you cut out of it, and let it resonate in the reader’s mind. Don’t try to explain everything. Street photography, of the kind practised by Henri Cartier-Bresson, brought this idea of the decisive moment to a very high state of polish. From Cartier-Bresson, one can learn that elements such as background or setting, in combination with a key movement or instantaneous action, can be heartbreaking, can be breathtaking. All the elements click into place, and the finger clicks the shutter: you’ve captured something.

When you do, you feel it in your bones. George Osodi, a great photographer of the city of Lagos, accomplishes just this: looking at his work, one sees both an ideal setting and a perfectly timed shot. That sensibility can migrate over into literature too.

The American writer Eudora Welty once said: “I like the feeling of being able to confront an experience and resolve it as art, however imperfectly and briefly.” Yes, that’s it exactly. The tools for seeking that resolution are many; the lessons of artistry are to be sourced from all over.




Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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