words follow me


archive of essays by Teju Cole for NEXT newspaper

sixth letter

My dear aburo,

How far? Many of the thoughts I’ve set down for you about the art of writing have been general. But here I am, sharing the same Lagos air as you, and I think perhaps I should give some writing advice more specific to this city of ours. As I go out in the city, I find that leaving Nigeria is something that is on the mind of many people. Our beloved president seeks medical care outside these shores, and even in our humble practice of the arts, we often look to foreign organisations for legitimation and prizes. There are those among us writers who are convinced that going to the United States or to England would be just the thing to vault them into stardom. They are convinced that literary achievement is not possible here. There’s a perception that the institutions are over there, the readers are there, and the publishers and distribution networks are there.

I hope you haven’t fallen prey to such thoughts. All those things might truly be there; but what is here are the stories. In the few weeks I’ve been in Lagos, I have gone out almost every day, covering the mainland, island and peninsula, traversing the lagoon countless times. What has struck me most is the abundance of narratives right here in Lagos. It is far in excess of what one might find anywhere else, except in similarly large and wild cities: Rio, Jakarta, Karachi.

I am not expressing a mere favoritism for the city of my youth although, like the poet Odia Ofeimun, I’ll confess to being a bit of a Lagos chauvinist. I am describing an objective reality: things are happening here. Tins dey occur. But to see what is happening, you need to reform your eyes. Your sensibilities have to be retrained so that they catch what others miss. This reformed vision is what will allow you to extract sorrow and beauty out of the seemingly-banal texture of the everyday. And that reformation comes about by taking the risk of being foolish, by learning to look askance at things that you know very well. In other words, look at your environment as though you were a child, or a foreigner, or an alien from another planet. An example, taken at random, from something I jotted down as I was in traffic last night:

“Ahead of us, a huge SUV rolls its front wheel, in slow motion almost, into a narrow culvert by the side of the road. The problem will take a good half-hour to solve, and will probably cause some traffic congestion behind us. We drive sharply around it, catching a glimpse of the fed-up madam’s face. We move through Oyingbo market, through the spicy smoke of the suya spots. On Choice FM, Naeto C sings his hit ‘Kini Big Deal.’ Folded into the thick of the night market is a man with a smile like those you see on old statues, He is leaning against a wall. His T-shirt reads ‘The House of Sin Is Holding It.’ The time is just after 7.30. It is a Saturday night, and my heart begins a sudden race, and and catches me by surprise in the net of joy.”

The lines do not constitute a masterpiece. But they do capture a lived moment, a described moment that would otherwise have vanished from the world’s record. Could you try to write something like this, even if it is this brief, daily? Where are you right now? Look outside the window. What is the built environment like? Who owns it? Who makes money from it formally? Who makes money from it informally? What are its dangers? What interactions are taking place in it?

It might be hard to believe that these things are interesting, but that is what your writing talent consists of: to make the ordinary interesting. In a field of unexceptional events, zoom in on the pungent detail.

I want to be practical now: how are you going to accomplish this? The answer is simple: keep a journal. It amazes me how often people call themselves writers and yet fail to write. Runners run everyday, and they know that not every run is a race. Musicians play music perpetually, but not every time they pick up the guitar is a concert. Writers, meanwhile, like to wait around for inspiration to strike. Don’t wait; write! Describe, describe, describe, and find the pleasure in pinning the right words to life’s incessant stream of sensations.

Your journal can be secret, and can in that form be as direct and ungoverned as you wish. But it is also good to write for an audience. To accomplish that, at least in this present dispensation, nothing beats blogging. I know that there might be some technical inconveniences to that goal in Naija, NEPA and sudden power cuts being the greatest of them. But it is eminently worth it; it is worth saving up (or begging, or borrowing) and buying a simple laptop computer.

It is also worth getting a broadband modem (after some initial wahala, I’ve found that the service offered by MTN works very well). Consider this the cost of your apprenticeship: the sum total of the money you’ll spend will be only a fraction of what a creative writing course might cost you, and it would be of much greater benefit.

For blogging, use one of the free services, such as WordPress or Blogspot. The blog itself will take just thirty minutes or an hour to set up. Write into it every day, or every other day. Visit other Nigerian bloggers; if you get into the network, they’ll link to your blog, or visit you, or tell their friends about the work you’re doing.

Above all, resist the temptation to be trite. It’s easy to get into blogging and let lazy habits take over. We do our work always in the shadow of herd thinking. Be expansive in your descriptions. Dare to bore. Undoubtedly, you will lose those people who are after something “lighter”; Godspeed to them. But you will also find fellow travellers, all sorts of young people like yourself, in Nigeria and outside, who have serious literary ambition, and who are making use of the internet to accomplish it. That experience will make writing less lonely.

A word of caution: the internet by itself solves nothing. It won’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. But you have to face the reality of the times you live in: gone are the days of sending your stories or poems by post to two hundred magazines and getting two hundred rejection slips. Blogging is the way forward now. It’s the way to get noticed—but only if you have a talent worth noticing. Can you imagine if we had one hundred and fifty Lagos bloggers, each of whom was writing descriptively about his or her neighborhood every day? That’s as good a substitute as I can imagine for the daily news. If your eventual interest is in writing a novel, that regular habit of noticing and describing you environment for an audience can provide an unparalleled launching pad.




Filed under: letters to a young writer, literature

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