Teju Cole on Artistic Inspiration

Taiye Selasi talks to writer, photographer, and essayist Teju Cole for The Guardian

Taiye Selasi: When you were last in Berlin we had a conversation, with Binyavanga Wainaina, about how a writer arrives at a given piece of text. I’d just read one of your Instagram captions, which, like much of your prose, seemed to have flowed perfectly formed from top of mind to tip of finger. “It so clearly comes so easily,” I marvelled, not without some envy. You smiled, and asked, “How do you know?” How do we know that the casually composed photograph, the hastily written paragraph, is the fruit of instantaneous revelation and not of assiduous labour? Is perhaps part of the genius of all great artists their ability to hide their sweat?

Teju Cole: Trick question there. I’m not going to say anything about what a genius does, because how would I know? I do find it very helpful to remain aware of contingency, in my own work and in that of others. Nothing about the making should be taken for granted. If I think of a writer whose work I admire for its fluency, I want to resist the temptation to assume it’s easier for her to get there than it would be for me. I’ve learned to suppose “this much excellence” is accompanied by “this much labour”. Sprezzatura, no? Though the temptation to think it comes easily to some people never goes away. [Read More]

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