Education is a powerful thing. Having a great teacher or mentor, however, is an invaluable gift to developing any craft. Author and 2013 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Donald Antrim credits a series of wonderful guides throughout his journey as a prolific fiction and nonfiction writer (“Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World,” “The Hundred Brothers,” “The Afterlife”), not to mention his editor of 20-plus years.
“Every writer and every young writer has a struggle to feel like he or she has permission to do this,” Antrim muses. “There’s all kinds of feelings [and doubts]: Can I even acknowledge I [write]? Can I admit I do it? Can I say these things?”
Once an associate professor in writing at Columbia University, he’ll return to the college campus on Wednesday, Feb. 6, to speak to UNCW’s Department of Creative Writing. As well, the acclaimed author also is a featured panelist at the second annual Writers Night at Bourgie Nights on February 7—a benefit for Friends School of Wilmington. He will speak alongside Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, Khalisa Rae Williams, LaRaisha Dionne, Clyde Edgerton, Emily Colin, Wiley Cash, and John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Antrim actually was invited by Sullivan—a well-known writer, who is working with Rhiannon Giddens on a musical about the Wilmington 1898 Riots. Sullivan and GIddens hosted a fundraiser for Friends School last spring, as part of the school’s ongoing outreach to educate the community on the its philosophies on stewardship and building confidence in the next generation of creative and critical thinkers.
“I’m always wanting younger writers to know it takes a long time,” Antrium offers. “It’s about work over years and years; their voices are what they are, what they write out—the sounds of characters for them.”
Antrim has struggled with insecurities in his own work, which is almost an ongoing practice for any writer. Though winning the MacArthur Genius Grant was an important accomplishment and boost in confidence, it more so gave him a chance to drift for a while. Meaning, he didn’t write to publish. He allowed himself to think about what he was putting on paper, carefully, without deadlines.
Antrim admits he was in a foggy place for the last 10 years, during which he thought a lot about the enigma of suicide, his personal struggles with mental health and the broader issue of healthcare and medicine as they all relate. The grant changed his life in many ways. As a longtime contributor for “The New Yorker,” it allowed him to write his story, which is finally culminating in a forthcoming article.
“It’s about my years of being in and out of hospitals with really major breakdown stuff,” he tells. “That’s resolved and in the past, but I’m writing about it now and I’m writing about it in order to change some of the ways we think about [mental health care] and get a better at dealing with it.”
Usually, Antrim reads an excerpt from a recent book at conferences and panels. In this case, his writing is different, astray from the dark humorous novels and collections of short stories he has been known for in the past. He believes it will fundamentally connect to others who face the same challenges in daily life. But writing it has not been easy.
Antrim has plans to evolve his soon-to-be-published piece into a larger publication down the road. First though, he wants to practice speaking about these struggles.
“But I’ve got to learn to talk about this new material as it were,” he admits. It’s scary and anxiety-provoking. It’s a very naked thing to do; I’m here to do it. . . . I’m not sure I would just decide to write these times a certain way or write just to do it, but the idea it might communicate or connect with people [or] family members or whoever, somebody [who’s] going through it, I think it’s important to make a connection.”