Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ story is an odd one. Until 2008, he was a modestly successful journalist writing for papers including The Washington City Paper and Time. But soon after, his Atlantic column and wildly successful blog culminated in the publication of his first memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. After attempting to pick up where celebrated author, essayist, and activist James Baldwin left off with his book Between the World and Me in 2015, Coates won the fabled MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant and, in the following year, began writing Marvel Comics’ Black Panther series.
This makes him a remarkable polymath, proficient as a writer, reporter, political commentator, and comic book writer – and there’s reportedly a novel in the works. As such, there’s an awful lot new and old writers alike can learn from Coates and, thankfully, he’s been vocal in sharing his advice. Let’s jump in.
1. Don’t fear stress
This opening tip is an easy one to take the wrong way, but Coates isn’t suggesting you throw yourself on the pyre just so that your next short story turns out well; rather, he’s suggesting that it’s often when we’re under the most pressure that we surprise ourselves.
Coates is speaking from personal experience. As an unemployed writer trying to finish his memoir while facing mounting responsibilities and deadlines, Coates fell into a dark and stressful place – as he says in his Atlantic interview, ‘I was banging my head against the wall, and nothing was coming out.’ He felt sure that he simply wasn’t equipped to do what he was trying to do.
Which was why, when the work got done, Coates was rather surprised.
Breakthroughs come from that sort of stress… I was clear that these [pieces] were things I was not capable of doing before. The writing was very different, the sentences had much more power… I think a lot of that had to do with the stress I was under.
– Ta-Nehesi Coates
Again: this doesn’t mean you should purposefully get yourself in a state in the hopes that you’ll start penning excellent sentences. However, next time you’re struggling or stressing out, try to channel that energy and focus in on the work that absolutely has to get done. You may surprise yourself.It’s sensible to avoid stress where you can, but under the right conditions, pressure creates diamonds.Click To Tweet
2. Repeat and revise
Beyond his excellent writing, part of Coates’ appeal as a mentor is his modesty. He doesn’t live like a mysterious, rugged alcoholic or an aloof, otherworldly virtuoso – instead, he comes across as a thoughtful, talented, and hard-working guy, especially in discussions of his writing process:
It’s not really that mystical… it’s like repeated practice over and over and over again and then suddenly you become something you had no idea you could really be.
– To-Nehisi Coates
According to Coates, writing is like trying to transcribe a ‘certain music in your head’. Unfortunately, capturing music on a page is a wildly difficult process, and your first attempts are going to be unsatisfying and at odds with what you’re actually trying to communicate. So, you do it over and over and over again – you revise, edit, rewrite, edit again – until finally you’re close enough.Craft, content, and commitment are all skills you can develop through practice.Click To Tweet
If at first you don’t succeed – and you won’t – try, try, and try again.
3. Fail and persevere
You might have grasped by now that Coates’ process is one that involves reframing, exploiting, and celebrating the negatives associated with writing. Yes, writing is hard – but that’s how you know you’re progressing; yes, you’ll never succeed on your first attempt – but you might on your twentieth. With this in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising to hear that Coates defines writing as continuously failing. But that’s no bad thing!
Failure is for writers what falling is for those learning to ski or capsizing is for those learning to kayak: it’s terrifying until you’ve actually done it. There’s a reason ski instructors integrate falling and capsizing into their lessons early on – because fear stymies progress. It needs to be nipped in the bud.Failure is integral to the writing process. It’s not the end; it’s the middle.Click To Tweet
For Coates, this means conceptualizing failure as something integral to the writing process. Each failure is a stepping stone toward improvement and should thus be viewed as necessary and good. Coates believes there is no ‘perfect’ text – there’s always some remove, no matter how miniscule, between the writer’s imagined work and the physical manifestation of their ability. As such, ‘The entire process is about failure.’
4. Shape your lifestyle
Echoing Napoleon Hill’s classic self-help title Think and Grow Rich, Coates suggests that in order to increase your chances of success in your field (in this case, writing), you must first alter your lifestyle to accommodate that success.
For Coates, this meant keeping his life outside of writing relatively calm, measured, and routine. Speaking about the things writers need to succeed, Coates said:
You so need time, and you don’t want to cultivate things that rob you of time. You should have a tight group of friends – just as many as you need to see, not too many. God, I’m giving the most conservative advice in the world! A good, consistent, monogamous relationship.
– Ta-Nehisi Coates
He goes on to clarify, suggesting that by living a stable and calm ‘real’ life, he is able to pour all his creative, wild, and excited energy into his work.
I think it was Julianne Moore who said, ‘Be regular and ordinary in your personal life so you can be wild and creative in your work.’ And I’m a big, huge believer in that. You need as much personal life discipline as possible, because that allows you to wreak havoc in your work.
– Ta-Nehisi Coates
Of course, not everyone is able to rely on stability in their personal lives – some have to work multiple jobs, some have dozens of kids running around, some aren’t in an emotional or psychological place where they can so easily compartmentalize. But you don’t need to go the whole hog: find small ways to accommodate writing into your life however you can. Perhaps that means carving out a small, quiet space you can dedicate to writing, or perhaps it means waking up an hour earlier in the morning. Baby steps!The more stable you can make your life, the more energy and creativity you can bring to your writing.Click To Tweet
5. Chase pathos
Unlike many writers who began as journalists, Coates has a keen eye for aesthetics and his prose shows an appreciation for beauty and poetry. But he doesn’t chase beauty for the sake of it or to distract from his content – rather, he wants his language to clarify. Responding to an interviewer who asked, ‘What is the importance of getting at the poetry?’, Coates said,
I try to clarify. I hope the beauty clarifies – I hope it doesn’t distract, I hope that it’s not just sort of purple prose. I listen to a ton of music when I write, I listen to a lot of Marvin Gaye, and I think about how Marvin sang and how that makes me feel, and I try to write in such a way that makes people feel things. I don’t want them to read what I’m writing and just say, ‘I think that’s right,’ and agree with me – I want them to read something and then walk away and then be haunted by it.
– Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates here is recognizing the power of pathos in both fictional and journalistic writing. By trying to appeal to people’s emotions, you not only deepen a reader’s engagement, but you also make them more sympathetic to either the point you’re making or the characters involved in the scene that’s unfolding. Wielding pathos is no easy task, but thankfully Coates is a master of the craft.
The beautiful struggle
If Coates can teach us anything, it’s that writing isn’t for the faint of heart. It involves work, pain, and a whole lot of good failure (you know a craft is tough when you’re judging success in terms of failure!), but after all the days spent banging your head against the wall in despair, there can be glimpses of hope, productivity, and near-transcendental success that make it all worthwhile. It’s a scary and intense journey, but Coates has your back.
What are your favorite works by Ta-Nehisi Coates? What lessons have you gleaned from his writing? Let us know in the comments, and check out Pathos Is Not A Dirty Word, And It Belongs In A Writer’s Vocabulary and Why You Don’t Need To Worry About Hating Your Own Work for more on Coates’ advice, or try 5 Ways Zadie Smith Can Help You Improve Your Writing and 7 Ways Kazuo Ishiguro Can Help You Improve Your Writing for other perspectives.