On @Tejucole and #Prompts


Teju Cole
Photo credit: Retha Ferguson

The use of the word prompt to mean incitement or cue has probably been around for 500 years or so, but its use in a narrower sense, as an instruction or directions for a writing assignment in class, is new to me. I swear I hadn’t even heard it until maybe a couple of years ago. “Professor, what is the prompt for next week?”

“Did you check the syllabus? Take this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, “Waiting for Icarus,” and rewrite it as if you were a reporter filing a story. Interview the speaker, etc.”

Everyone understands the idea of prompts. The use of #hashtags on Twitter, in my opinion, offers the most succinct example of incitement to writing. The novelist and photographer Teju Cole has used Twitter #hashtags to provoke public writing and image-making among his 190,000 followers. This exercise can become an extraordinarily creative, collaborative act. Cole is on a temporary (or maybe permanent) break from Twitter, but even as I started writing this post I saw that he was producing a new set of essays on Instagram, reposting photographs of the Mona Lisa taken by visitors to the Louvre, and accompanying them with his analysis of social photography, the ritual function of icons, and the optical qualities of digital compression.

Last year, on the first day of freshman composition, I introduced students to the essay form through Cole’s tweets about drones. Here was an elegant, eminently literary, entry into the contemporary world: a quick rewriting of the opening lines of the classics. I wanted students to throw away the five-paragraph costume-armor of the high-school essay. They were already masters of that particular form; they could now break rules and become inventive writers. We would explore other conventional as well as unconventional essays later in the course, but that first day I asked my freshmen to write essays about their first day at the college in 140 characters, #hashtag included. Cole also came in handy for my beginning journalism students, whether they wanted to offer critical commentary or report on news in more creative ways.

In a scene early in Open City, Cole’s award-winning novel, Julius, his protagonist, wanders into the American Folk Art Museum, and sees an exhibition of paintings by John Bewster Jr. Julius finds Brewster’s portraits of children unsettling. Later, he discovers that Brewster’s subjects, like Brewster himself, were deaf. Julius’s reading of the paintings, precise and slow, served in my class as a prompt for a visit to Vassar’s Loeb art center to look at the XL exhibit and then write about any one of the art works on display.

Careful seeing and critical commentary are part of the apparatus of Open City. The novel was praised by James Wood in The New Yorker for providing a rare example in contemporary fiction where literary theory was neither satirized nor flaunted to establish the author’s credentials. In return, the book has been popular in university courses. Cole told me that his readers in academe are enthusiastic about Open City because it “takes for granted some of the language that they use to think about the world.”

When I asked him if we could think of a writing prompt to which the response is the novel Open City, Cole said that a novel was an answer to a question or a set of questions, and you are only able to figure out what the questions are after writing the novel. And what did he realize after finishing his own book? That he had been responding to questions about mourning in the post-9/11 moment, that he had been working through how historical innocence and guilt affect personal innocence and guilt. And there was something else he discovered quite late: The novel was also “trying to be responsible to academic insight as part of the texture of life.”

Academic insight? Yes.

One of the questions Open City did not know it was setting out to answer, Cole said, was the following: “What does a novelistic space look like if the work of Barthes, Fanon, Butler, Foucault, Said, etc., are taken seriously as part of the world? Because, after all, they are indeed part of the world, and have actually helped improve it.”




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