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archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

first letter

Dear friend,

Let me begin with a confession: I am not qualified to give you advice. For a start, I am a young writer myself, hardly older than you, or perhaps you are even older than I am. I also recognise (as you surely recognise as well) that there are few things more resistant to tutoring than the creative arts. Most importantly, I know so little of your specific situation that in giving you any counsel, I have to restrict myself to generalities. Still, I am always trying to learn more about this writerly craft of ours, and that same instinct is at work in all writers, old and young. So, you will forgive me what follows, and perhaps in these paragraphs find one or two things that will be helpful to you.

You mentioned in your letter that you are determined to write some stories. This is good news: in finding the time and space to do your writing, you will come up with something tangible. It is good to set it down. Whatever you come up with, whatever its merits, will be of more worth than even the most Shakespearean of unwritten books. There are perhaps a hundred different things I could tell you as you embark on this strange writerly journey. But let me limit myself to eight for now. Take them not as rules but as suggestions, as reminders about things that I myself wish I had known sooner.

The first has to do with the texture of your writing itself: keep it simple. George Orwell’s advice, repeated numerous times, is worth bringing out again: never use a big word where a small one will do. There are many who use big words to mask the poverty of their ideas. A straightforward vocabulary, using mostly ordinary words, spiced every now and again with an unusual one, persuades the reader that you’re in control of your language. Use simple words fortified by a few bigger ones, and along with this variation, vary, too, the rhythm of your sentences. Most of them should be short, but the occasional long one will give a musical and pleasing cadence to your writing.

My second suggestion is that you remove all clichés from your writing. Spare not a single one. The cliché is an element of herd thinking, and writers should be solitary animals. Phrases that have been used to the point of becoming meaningless have no place in your stories. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” “Not my cup of tea,” “Everything happens for a reason”: mildewed language of this kind is a waste of the reader’s time.

Three: avoid adverbs. Let the nouns, adjectives and verbs carry the action of the story. “He smiled” is much stronger than “he smiled wickedly.” If the character is wicked, let the story show that. When you are editing, interrogate each adverb and eject any that doesn’t have a good reason to be there.

Four: when reporting speech, it is enough to say “she said” or “he said.” You must leave “he chortled,” “she muttered,” “I shouted,” and other such phrases to writers of genre fiction. These extra verbs add nothing to a narrative, and only suggest to the reader that you don’t have full confidence in your art. These first four suggestions point in the same direction: aim for a transparent style so that the story you’re telling is that much more forceful.

Five: read. Read more than you write. In expressing the ambition to be a writer, you are committing yourself to the community of other writers. John Berger once wrote that a quack is a doctor who has failed to integrate his few insights into the general body of medical information. As a writer, whatever your insights might be, you have to connect them to what else has been done in literature. Don’t be like those who worry so much about originality that they end up writing garbage. Instead, disciple yourself to great writers. Read Mann, García Márquez, Coetzee, Joyce, and learn at their feet. Your originality will mean nothing unless you can understand the originality of others.

Read slowly, like someone studying the network of tunnels underneath a bank vault in preparation for a heist. What can you steal from the techniques of the masters? Understand what Joyce is doing with language in Dubliners. Immerse yourself in the slow, taut arc of Mann’s Magic Mountain. And then (a little brashness helps) ask yourself: what can you do even better than them?

Six: rely on observation. You can’t fool the reader. I remember writing poems, as a child, about snowy peaks and picnics in meadows (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recounts something similar of her own childhood: it must be all the Enid Blyton we both read). It is bogus to write only about mud huts and village streams if you’ve lived your whole life in Somolu or Bariga. Your environment is interesting for its own sake and Somolu is more interesting than most places. Can you perhaps do for your city what Joyce did for Dublin? I beg you: observe, observe, observe. Eavesdrop while you’re sitting in the hospital waiting room. Be ruthless in your use of what you’ve seen and what you’ve experienced. Write about the one-armed guy selling rat poison on the danfo, or what happened when the day your estranged aunt came to visit. To all these add your imagination, so that the line where invention ends and reality begins is undetectable. “It’s just like a memoir” is the highest praise anyone can give your work of fiction. And if anyone asks whether you really did put trace amounts of rat poison in your uncle’s amala, simply smile and shrug. Begin your stories in observation, then let invention take over.

Seven: be courageous. Nothing human should be far from you. Write about murder and exam cheats; about depression and borrowed money. Write about the senator who lives in constant fear that her thievery will be found out, or the grandmother who wants to sleep with her son-in-law. What about the imam who realises one Friday afternoon that he’s become an atheist? What of the anti-gay activist who himself is secretly gay? Tell the story you need to tell. Remember that you are not writing for the moral improvement of your reader. Leave that to others. You are writing so that you and the reader can share a solidarity in the complications of the human condition.

Eight: avoid writing narratives that have only a single meaning. When you write about the dishonest senator, write it less as a denunciation of corruption (that is boring, everyone denounces corruption; even the senator herself denounces corruption, as she stuffs more money into her bag) and more as a study of what it’s like to be a thief and to live in fear of being found out. If you can persuasively evoke the brittleness, jumpiness, and false confidence of a thief, you will have succeeded.

These are eight ideas. I could give you another eight, but I must pause here. These suggestions, you should understand, will be of no value to you unless you have the inner fire to really follow writing wherever it leads you. If you have that fire already, and I believe you do, if you’re ready to stay up late at night to do the work, if you’re truly willing to shuttle between reality and the dreamworld like a courier, then you won’t be discouraged when you hit the inevitable roadblocks. You’ll write not because you want to but because you must.

Consider this: “Perhaps it will become apparent to you that you are indeed called to be a writer. Then accept that fate; bear its burden and its grandeur, without asking for the reward, which might possibly come from without.” Those are Rilke’s words. They should be yours, too.

best,
TC

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Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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