Jami Attenberg: 'Verwerping het my 'n nuwe begin gegee, 'n nuwe jaar'

When I was 21, 'n man wat as 'n gesaghebbende oor letterkunde beskou word, het voorgestel dat ek nie 'n skrywer word nie. Dit was 'n paar dae voordat ek met 'n graad in kreatiewe skryfwerk aan die universiteit gegradueer het. The National Book award-winning writer who had taught our senior fiction seminar told me, quite gently, to give up on my dreams.

I can picture so clearly that room where we sat together, him behind a desk, sunlight streaming in from the windows behind him. He was not happy to see me when I walked in the door. I was young and punk and weird and had big hair. Hy was 55, bearded, grey and bespectacled.

All semester, he had barely critiqued my stories, remaining quiet in class as my peers rattled off suggestions and ideas. He returned printouts of my work with just a few scribbles added. And now here I was visiting him in his office, ready for the moment where he would tell me where I could improve, what paths he thought I should take.

He asked me what I wanted to do after graduation, and I told him I wanted to write. Hy het gesê: "Jy weet, honey, not everyone makes it as a writer.”

I walked out of his office, dazed and discouraged. I suppose I had wanted him to say: “You’re a genius. Let me make a few calls and get you an agent. Or a job that will set you on your way.”

Perhaps he thought I didn’t have talent. Of, perhaps he saw me as frivolous. I was writing stories about sex and relationships and so-called domestic matters. I remember I wrote an entire short story about a woman waiting to get her period. He wrote big, sprawling novels that were about soldiers and war and violence. Maybe he didn’t enjoy teaching; he had never seemed excited to be there. To discourage someone from even trying, wel? To say “give up” before I’d even gotten started?

Writing is holy, as my friend Patricia Lockwood says. It is true that it is hard to make it as a writer, or any kind of artist, for that matter. But if you love to write, you should write forever.

For years I have used this story as inspiration. He told me I couldn’t, and yet somehow I did anyway. He was an older man, negative and condescending. I’ll show him, Ek dink. But it is only recently that I realised that moment was actually radically freeing. I was probably not suited to be a writer in the way he thought was important. But that did not mean I was not suited to be a writer. In a way, he gave me a fresh start, a new year. The first of January of the rest of my life.

In werklikheid, he was telling me the truth as he knew it. The career path of a fiction writer in 1993 was defined but also limited. Achieving a master of fine arts degree, perhaps adjunct teaching, submitting to literary journals, the New Yorker, Grant,the Paris Review, every little journal across America, applying for grants and residencies, maybe working toward tenure. A lot of it sounded like the kind of work that I wouldn’t be any good at.

But that was what was available at the time. There were no obvious workarounds coming out of the academic world. What I took away from him was that I would have to carve my own path.

No problem, easy-peasy. I only had to fail a hundred times to get there, get terrible reviews until I got good reviews, go broke once or twice (OK thrice), toss out any idea of achieving conventional life goals, and essentially edit my very existence in service of being a writer. But I was that, na alles, even if it took more than a decade to arrive there.

I took dozens of jobs I could quit easily – and often did. I waited tables, tended bars and temped in a blur of offices across the US. I made so many mistakes, but I was always keeping my eye on the prize: the time to read and write and think. No matter what, I always found my way back to writing. That’s the part that kept me sane all along. Not selling a book or publishing a book but making the book in the first place.

Uiteindelik, I landed in New York City. I worked in advertising, writing bits of terrible copy to keep the lights on. I went to readings and studied other writers. I started to give readings myself. I made a few zines. The whole time I wasn’t thinking about literary credibility. I just wanted to write because it was the thing I loved best. I was building this creative life without consciously knowing it.

I found my way to the internet in the late 90s. I started as someone with a blog. It wasn’t the way you were supposed to do it at the time, but it was the way that made the most sense to me. There was no splashy short story debut in the New Yorker. But I attracted a readership, and worked my way into writing essays, more zines and then a short book with a small press, and then very blindly and naively writing a linked story collection, my first with a big press, 13 years after I had graduated from college.

Things have gotten a little easier as time has gone on, but still I never relax. There is no coasting in a creative life; we are constantly adjusting, altering, tending our paths. And there’s a lot of insecurity: about money, your identity, your place in the world, your reviews, your relevance.

A few things have helped me along the way: ideas or actions to continue stimulating my growth as a person and an artist.

Travelling is one. I’ve driven across country, caught trains to different cities and ridden my bike all over New York City in search of a new cafe or a sculpture garden I hadn’t seen before. Even just walking everywhere I can has been helpful, eyes up, paying attention, watching, luister.

And I have read constantly, outside my genre as well as within it. Reading is the surest path to understanding. It leads to a fullness within us.

I focused on friendships, ook, becoming part of a cohort I didn’t necessarily know I was developing – I have always just been so excited to meet other writers. I went to readings and drinks after literary conferences, sent emails and liked tweets because I wanted to. The extra gift is that these people end up being your best cheerleaders and critics alike. I found the ones who would tell me the truth, and who wanted me to succeed – and I have tried to be that person for them, as well.

I looked for role models, ook, when I was starting out. I looked up to the writers who led the way by being inventive in form or genre, or giving voice to characters of all kinds, or who smashed through glass ceilings or knocked down gates. I paid attention to them and was inspired by them.

I could never have planned for it to work out the way it did. I have written eight books and will probably write at least a few more. I live a quiet life with my dog in a small house with a nice back yard where I have finally stopped killing everything I plant. I treasure my friendships and the endless pile of notebooks I keep filling, marvelling occasionally at how there are always, op een of ander manier, more words in the world. There is always a fresh start when I open a new notebook. It is always 1 January when I turn to the first page.

I recently turned 50, byna 30 years since that (now deceased) old teacher of mine told me I probably shouldn’t bother. I’m old enough to realise that there is one more important part to carving out your creative life: honouring your successes no matter the size. And honouring the bad moments too. Laying your burdens down. Building this writing life has always been about recognising what was holding me back so I could move on. One writer told me no. I honour his rejection. He said no, but I said yes.

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