This series of letters, from Teju Cole to an imaginary young Nigerian author, is a rich resource for all writers.
Not quite a decade ago, author Teju Cole penned Eight Letters to a Young Writer, a fictional exercise in which he gives advice to a young Nigerian writer in a series of eight letters. It’s a lovely, leisurely read, packed with practical advice for writers, seasoned and new.
Here are highlights from Cole’s first letter, Simplicity:
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.
The cliché is an element of herd thinking, and writers should be solitary animals.
In short, keep it simple. He continues:
Read more than you write. In expressing the ambition to be a writer, you are committing yourself to the community of other 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.
Translation: read, read, and read. In addition to reading, you must observe constantly.
Eavesdrop while you’re sitting in the hospital waiting room. . . . Begin your stories in observation, then let invention take over.
Each letter has its own focus — the second letter, Freedom, looks to the writing of Gabriel García Márquez as an example of character development, while the third letter, Voice, sheds light on this ever-elusive topic:
But what, exactly, is voice? Writing is silent: mute ink on a flat page. Writing has no volume, no timbre, no accent, no actual sound, and when we read, the only voice we hear is the imaginary one in our own heads.
In Inwardness, the fourth letter, Cole digs deeper into the subject of voice, and describes the magical connection between a reader and a writer who has nailed his or her voice:
How does she seemingly climb into our heads—and not even “our heads” but “my head,” because it feels so personal, so specific—without actually knowing us or our circumstances, and from that vantage point proceed to unfold a narrative that we are certain was written only with us, only with me in mind? I don’t know how it is done. It isn’t taught in any school, not even in the schools of writing. But here’s my guess: the writer takes us into her confidence, but does it without appearing to do so.
But this isn’t just a writing resource in epistolary form — it’s an ongoing conversation between one Nigerian writer to another. In Cole’s sixth letter, Home, he celebrates the work of Nigerian writers of all ages (yet his words are relevant to anyone writing and blogging today):
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.
Want to read more? Teju Cole’s Eight Letters to a Young Writer is available in PDF form. If you’ve never read it, add it to your list!