by Teju Cole
“Above all else, resist the temptation to be trite.”
This is not a review as much as a collection of impressions.
I recently went through a period of “writer’s block.” Nothing severe – I was burned out, having participated in one writing challenge after another in open forums on tumblr and Wattpad. Meanwhile, I had several works-in-progress open on my hard drive as well as stories from fellow writers in various stages of betaing, editing, or submission. It all fell on me at once when I finished the draft of my latest tale, a story that begins with the ghost of a dead husband. I had emptied my creative well. And I had nothing marketable to show for my work, as I had given most of it away.
Needless to say, the stresses of my day job as a writing teacher preparing middle schoolers for a state standardized test, my other full-time gig as mother and wife, and the mental exhaustion of writing too damned much in too damned little time took its toll. I chose sleep. I read two novels. Forget about looking for my muse, who’d gone off to take a nap as well. I wasn’t even showing up to the writing table.
So imagine, in my mental perambulations, how excited I was to discover Eight Letters to a Young Writer, by the Nigerian writer and photographer, Teju Cole, author of the Every Day is for the Thief, Known and Strange Things and, most recently, Blind Spot (click pictures to link to Amazon listing).
I’m not a great believer in providence, and certainly, I don’t imagine that my tiny struggles are of the nature to call the attention of any divine beings who might operate in the place of providence. There are matters of greater importance in the universe than my creative sufferings. But I did feel like these letters were, in some way, meant for me.
Ostensibly written to an imaginary young Nigerian writer, he speaks to both a general audience and those who express themselves through the literary arts. He addresses the reader, not as a wizened writer imparting decades of hard-earned wisdom in fiction writing, but as an equal, drawing the reader into the complicity of one who sees himself as a young writer as well.
“Let me begin with a confession: I am not qualified to give you advice […] I am always trying to learn more about this writerly craft of ours, and the same instinct is at work in all writers, old and young.”
Each letter examines a different aspect of writing. For example, after a first letter full of practical writing advice, he goes on to discuss matters such as the importance of reading and making your writing a part of a greater historical narrative, author’s voice as the defining feature of great writing, the disposition of inwardness and the wealth of knowledge to be gained by listening to/reading author interviews.
“Whatever you come up with, whatever its merits, will be of more worth than even the most Shakespearean of unwritten books.”
What I loved the most about this collection of letters is how approachable the writer appears to be when sharing his observations. He is in the trenches with the new writer and speaks from this mode of being himself a work in progress. It takes away the sense of intimidation one can often feel when reading advice from authors about writing.
Has it cured my writer’s block? I think the correlation is not that simple. I already know that the cure is simply to write through it – hence these reviews. I’m in a transition period, moving into a more serious phase of my writing, and I am fully aware that such metamorphoses are always painful and consume great energy. But these letters make the novice writer feel like these experiences are a natural part of the vocation. In the infinite loneliness of writing, there is a kind of comfort in this knowledge which empowers the young writer to carry on.
“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”
“There are many who use big words to mask the poverty of their ideas.”
“In serious writing, the writer goes one extra step, and by taking the gamble of including ‘you in particular’ must perforce exclude other, perhaps more casual readers. This is the price the writer must pay for achieving an interesting voice, a voice that captures and earns your serious loyalty.”