Who Is Your Teacher(2)? Teju Cole

A little rewind to something around 2012, I was addicted to a forum called Nairaland.

I read a lot of web stories. It was the first time I realized I could and wanted to be a writer after reading many interesting stories by people like me.

So I tried, failed, and quit. Then I promised never to write anything online again.

But no, like a child learning to walk, I couldn’t stop.

I began to search for how to hack this right thing. I would start with terms like “how to write a novel” or “How to become a writer.”

That was how I found these Eight Letters to A Writer.

It was available for free online. So I got a copy of the eight chapters, read it all in one sitting, and reread it the next day.

It was written by a man called Teju Cole.

Who Is Teju Cole?

Teju Cole is a Nigerian author, photographer, essayist, and Lagosian. His style is unique, and his advice is excellent for young writers.

In my previous blog posts on how to become a rich writer, I wrote that every writer should try to balance their artistic and business sides.

Teju Cole’s letters are excellent guides for improving your writing style, your artistic side.

How Does This Help a Copywriter or Content Writer?

To be honest, his advice is for fiction writers.

However, his lessons are great for everyone who writes for a living, whether you’re a marketer, blogger, or content marketer.

Teju Cole captures the importance of imagination, creating a connection with your writing and editing like a painter adding the finishing to a masterpiece.

Valuable Advice From Teju Cole’s 8 Letters to a Young Writer

These are snippets from Teju’s Cole that I found helpful and memorable.

#1. Make your setting come alive

One of the best things you can do for your readers is to make them live inside your setting when they pick your book.

Give them all they need to enjoy or experience the setting.

For instance, think of the place you have visited and loved.

Then, close your eyes and remember how it feels to be there.

That’s the same experience you want to give the readers.

It’s worth learning how to move the “camera” of your mind’s eye over a written scene, taking note of what a camera would see: the lighting, the small movements, the seemingly insignificant things.

Teju Cole, 8 Letters To A Young Writer

Details make your story come alive. Learn how to use them.

#2. Take control of your language.

Great writers don’t use the same simple sentences everyone uses. They have more flexibility in how they describe things.

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

For example, Chimamanda tells us how Kambili’s father comes into her room in Purple Hibiscus:

I WAS IN MY ROOM after lunch, reading James chapter five because I would talk about the biblical roots of the anointing of the sick during family time, when I heard the sounds. Swift, heavy thuds on my parents’ hand-carved bedroom door. I imagined the door had gotten stuck and Papa was trying to open it. If I imagined it hard enough, then it would be true. I sat down, closed my eyes, and started to count. Counting made it seem not that long, made it seem not that bad. Sometimes it was over before I even got to twenty. I was at nineteen when the sounds stopped. I heard the door open. Papa’s gait on the stairs sounded heavier, more awkward, than usual.

You can read my review of Chimamanda’s Americanah.

#3. Listen to interviews

Interviews give you insights into topics and life of authors. You will hear your favorite authors talk about their craft or exciting topics.

We’re lucky to live in these times. For most of the history of writing, all readers saw was the finished work. There were no book tours, few images of the author, and certainly no radio or television appearances. The author was merely a name, and that name was attached to a body of work. But these days, authors are more available to us, more willing and able to take us into the work in a way that is different from the work itself. Interviews abound, and while they are diverting for the general reader, they represent a much greater boon for young writers: a privileged and educative view of literary alchemy.

Teju Cole

#4. Imitate your favourites

My early fiction story attempted to write like my favorite authors. So I wrote my first story and tried to write Flannery O’Connor, Everything That Rises Must Converge.

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?

Teju Cole

Your first job is to read a lot of fiction and then study the ones that move you.

#5. Your Location is A Mighty Source of Inspiration

If you look around you, ideas are everywhere. And the best ones are those you’re connected with. They are stories about your city, friend, neighbor, and community problem. Those are powerful, and no one could do it better than you — because you are connected to it, because to you, it’s not just a story, it’s your history.

Think of the best authors you know. What are their best stories? What’s the connection they have with the story?

Chimamanda Wrote Half of Yellow Sun — A tale of the civil war in Nigeria. The setting was Nsukka, the same city where she grew up.

Hauraki Murakami wrote Norwegian Woods — It’s set in Tokyo. Reading the book is a perfect way to experience the city without visiting.

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.

Teju Cole, eight letters to a young Writer

#6. Your voice is what people think of the person behind the story, the hands that type it.

Your voice answers the question, “How do you want to tell this story?”

Ursula K. LeGuin has written that “the 18 story is not in the plot but in the telling.” What all great works have in common is that the voicing is secure. There is evidence, throughout, that how the tale is being told is precisely how the author wishes it to be told.”

Be conscious of what you want the readers to think about the author (voice) creating the story. This will make you look at your sentences and narrative objectively so that you can write them differently until things feel right.

#7. Writing is like Coding. It’s not about the letters or punctuation… It’s about the magic you create with them.

You can think of writing as sentences, words, or punctuation, but that’s not what excellent writing is about.

Denise. Man goat sliced meat, my daughter, first.

In the line above, we have words and some punctuation. Is that an example of excellent writing?

The answer is no.

But if you rewrite it to become: My first daughter, Denise, sliced the goat meat.

The words are now in the correct order, and the punctuation is in the right places. This is writing.

Writing is not about words or punctuation. It’s about how you use the resources the universe has given you.

Writing is the specialised tool through which something happens but that “something” is superior to the form of its expression, and it is held (or sought) in common with those who have different ways of expressing it

Teju Cole

#8. Characters do shocking things

The books or content that are interesting and worth the time are those that promise the unexpected.

  • The man who is trading his sister for power (Game of Thrones)
  • The Bishop who punishes his daughter with boiling water (Purple Hibiscus)
  • The mother hates her husband and one of her twin sons. She starts her life as a whore and ends it by managing a whore house (East of Eden)

These are extreme examples, but you should understand that only those who do shocking/intriguing things are interesting to read about IN BOOKS or movies.

Your job as a writer is to tell your story without judging. Let the readers be the judge.

Characters do shocking things, not because the author wishes to shock but because it is in the character of humans to misbehave (even when, in general, they are good people). García Márquez has the ability to write this in a way that makes it seem normal; this helps us trust him. He doesn’t judge his characters, and as such we feel that he won’t judge us, his readers, either.

This blog section focuses on individuals who have achieved greatness in a creative field (often writing). Check here to see previous posts or read the next about Zadie Smith and J. K. Rowling.