8 May 2016
Nigerian author, Teju Cole, wrote a compilation of insights on writing, reading and the craft of literature in general. According to him, the work “Eight Letters to a Young Writer” initially started as a fictional work imagined for a young Nigerian writer.
In his letters, he listed advises for writers to note to hone their skills and become better at the craft – simple writing precepts to more complex technicalities like voice and calling.
Highlighting his thoughts, the first letter deals with simplicity. He suggested:
“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. “
“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. “
He nudged on the importance of reading – almost more than you write. He recommended to read:
Dubliners – James Joyce
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann
Disgrace – J.M Coetzee
He suggests to read from authors and learn from them.
“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? “
On inspiration, he feels it is necessary to pay attention and look out on the world:
“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. “
The letter goes more to talk on freedom, voice, inwardness, artistry, home and fearlessness. Read the entire letter here.