Teju Cole: When Making Art, ‘Have a Beginner’s Mind’

Half a dozen years ago, I met Teju Cole at a book party in New York. His first novel, Open City, had yet to come out. But as soon as it did, his writing career essentially exploded. Among the many projects he now juggles is his role as photography critic for The New York Times Magazine. Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with him, and we spent two hours talking about writing and photography in connection with his essay “Far Away From Here,” which ran in the magazine last year. This is the result.

One of my favorite things to emerge from this interview was the insight into how closely Teju works with his editors, how enthusiastically he relies on them. I didn’t call him with questions about editing tucked in my pocket. He brought up the subject, time and time again. We discussed negotiations over content, structure, and style; arguments over adverbs; and his devotion to the Oxford comma — which the Times doesn’t use:

When I was writing more frequently for The New Yorker, I was like, this is a bit excessive, too many commas. And now, I totally miss them. I’m very often restructuring sentences to find a workaround so that my Oxford comma-less sentence is not just there naked. 

I’m also fond of the way Teju talked about endings, which are so hard to get right:

You could say there are three “ends” to this essay, and what makes them endings is that each is full of the energy and quite a bit of the language that we saw in the course of the essay. I’m saying, “Thank you for being with me over 4,500 words, I don’t forget the things we’ve talked about, here they are.” … The essay begins in a kind of full maturity: “I’m the kind of person who gets invited to places. Very few strings attached. A man of a certain eminence.” And then it ends with something very simple, very personal — this idea that when you’re making art, you have to have a beginner’s mind. You cannot approach it from a know-it-all perspective. If you’re not opening yourself to the possibility of radical simplicity, then you’re going to miss it. You’re going to think there’s no there there. But you have to give it the chance.