Creative Writing Prompts (Teju Cole and Neil Gaiman)

On 30 April 2014, I took a quick break from exam revision to browse my Twitter feed.

As many users know, Twitter has closed the gap between the rich and famous, and the rest of us plebeians. It has graciously provided a platform for us to voice our poor and amateurish and foolhardy opinions, a blessed medium for interacting with our favourite celebrities, whether authors or actors or musicians. And if, miraculously, one of your revered idols inconceivably favourites, retweets, or (heaven-forbid, can this really be happening?!) actually responds personally to your tweet – your inconsequential utterance which essentially is a shart of the mind – one out of hundreds, even thousands (or probably millions, I suspect, for Neil Gaiman) directed to them in hopes of gaining boasting rights, you are entitled to five full seconds of unrestrained outburst at this pinnacle of your Twitter career: ‘OMG!! Neil Patrick Harris or Emma Watson or [insert name here] responded to me!! I AM FREEAAKIINGG OUT!!’ I’m not mocking anyone. The same thing happened to me.


© The Lavin Agency Ltd.

Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer. He’s probably most acclaimed for his novel Open City though his pieces of journalism make their rounds frequently in the major newspapers and magazines (New York Times, New Yorker, Atlantic, etc.). He’s sharp and observant, witty and bold. He’s also one of the most active writers on Twitter; several of his Twitter serials have made headlines (his recent rants ‘bring back our girls?’ about the world’s inadequate dealings with Boka Haram, as well as his wholly entertaining tweets during the World Cup garnered much attention). My personal favourite written piece(s) by him might be his ‘small fates’ series aka ‘news briefs’: ‘small fates’

So going back to 30 April, I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw the following tweets by Teju Cole:

I had studied rather extensively that day and desperately needed a break. I thought, why not? It’d be a good quick exercise. I put aside my books (the Arden Shakespeare edition of either A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing), opened up Word and jotted down a story in a minute. I don’t remember my creative thought process; in fact, I don’t think there really was one. I was 90% dazed from the hours of revision and was typing mindlessly – my fingers were moving of its own accord.

But I liked it. I found my 3-sentence story funny. And I sent a screenshot of my story in a reply to Teju Cole, closed my laptop, picked up my Arden and continued my tedious revision.

5 minutes later, I felt my iPhone vibrate. Glancing at the screen, I nearly dropped my book. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was grinning like a maniac. I think I even punched my fist in the air, very uncharacteristic of me, but it shows just how excited I was. Teju Cole had retweeted my story!

It didn’t take long for other Twitter users (Teju Cole has a grand 160,000+ followers) to favourite and retweet my story, to my utter delight. It was my moment (albeit slight) of Twitter fame. I felt as if I had won a competition, or at least been shortlisted for a prize. In a way, I had Teju Cole’s stamp of approval and that was enough to make my day!

It’s not perfect. If I had actually taken the time to edit it instead of immediately tweeting it, I would have substituted ‘said’ for ‘explained’ in the first sentence since I use ‘explanation’ in the next. But I was proud of it. And I was happy other people liked it too.

For those interested, you can read all 7 stories Teju Cole chose and retweeted here: ‘seven short stories about the situation’


© Kimberly Butler

Such writing prompts from famous writers aren’t unusual. A year ago, Neil Gaiman (critically acclaimed for The Sandman, American Gods, and most recently, The Ocean at the End of the Lane; you’ll be hearing a lot about him from me since I’m writing my dissertation on The Sandman) challenged readers through the Guardian (‘Write a story with Neil Gaiman’) to write a story starting with the following sentence:

It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat.

I was at work that day but took up the challenge and wrote my story in five minutes. It wasn’t chosen by Neil Gaiman as one of the standout stories (there were hundreds, to be fair) but after posting it as a comment on the Guardian website, it received 1 like, meaning at least one person somewhere out there enjoyed it. And honestly, that’s enough to make me smile and think, a job well done, a story well written. (Bonus points for those who notice the obvious influence of Haruki Murakami.)


Greek Tragedy
by Justin Lau

It wasn’t just the murder, he decided. Everything else seemed to have conspired to ruin his day as well. Even the cat.

He woke up to find himself lying in his bed, the room empty save his cat watching over him with piercing yellow eyes. “You scared me for a minute,” it said.

“Give me a break, will you?” He clenched his eyes and thought of more pleasant things.

“I’m sorry, all right? It was unintentional. I misheard you say Plan B,” it said apologetically.

He sighed. “I know. I’m just grumpy right now.”

It purred, “You need a vacation. You need to recuperate.”

“And who’s going to run the business while I’m away?”

“I will.”

“As if. What if something like today happens again?”

“Please, how long have we been partners? Where’s your faith in me?”

“You’re right,” he conceded, “you’ll be fine without me.”

“I could always put appointments on hold until you’re back, ask our clients for extensions. I’m sure they won’t mind.”

“Our business is thriving, it could potentially take a dip.” He grabbed his gun off the bedside table and began polishing it.

“We’ve succeeded in every job so far, we strike true. Our reputation exceeds us. I reckon we can afford to take a break once in a while.”

He nodded in agreement and gestured for it to come close, stroking its soft white fur. They had been companions, compatriots, through thick and thin. “I’d like that very much. Any recommendations?”

It meowed ecstatically. “Greece. Greece is nice.”

“Sounds lovely.”


The next day, word travelled around that he had gone to Greece while the cat stayed put in his absence.

The following day, upon returning to his hotel from the beach, he received word that it had been shot dead, in an act of revenge, by the brother of victim #62.

© Justin Lau, 2014


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