Katie Altemus is one of those people who has become a central figure in my writing life. Their wisdom, their support, their reminder to me that the way I do the writing life isn’t the way everyone does has been a gift to me. So today, I’m honored to share their words with you. Enjoy, friends.
About 30 years ago, in the coldest part of winter, I took auditions. I toted my violin to Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Rochester, a few other places I can’t remember. My heart was set on Eastman School of Music, hours away at the University of Rochester. Even at peak nerves on audition day, I recognized all of the teachers from the brochures I’d been poring over for weeks; glossy card stock drawn from envelopes I’d snatched directly from the mail carrier’s hands. It felt like the right place… comfortingly far from the high school where I’d never quite fit in, and a wonderful spot from which to launch my career as a professional musician.
Some time after that chilly northward trip, a lone rejection letter arrived among the academic and musical acceptances. I recounted and re-examined every note of my Eastman audition, wondering which missed pitch or fumbled bow stroke had been the deciding event. I read the letter over again. My conservatory application had been rejected because the file was incomplete: it was missing my private teacher’s recommendation letter.
Memory has blurred the details of just who spoke to the teacher, of her response, of the existence (or non-existence) of an apology. The rejection stood, and somehow I continued to attend lessons with her as I formulated a backup plan. I’d been accepted as a University student at Rochester, and I decided to express interest in attending the University and taking private lessons at the music school.
Also a blur is the identity of the person with whom I shared my backup plan. When asked what my major might be, I replied (imagining a glorious world of books and essays, and authoring my first novel), “English.” The responding voice held a surprising level of scorn. “You’re not going to the University of Rochester to be an English major.”
That sentence and the silence just before it, to the exclusion of all else from that time, remain remarkably clear. From my current vantage point as a parent, that silence was the pause between the crash and the wail – a universal yardstick for injury and property damage alike. I still carry the scar of that response.
I attended a small liberal-arts college as a music major. I was happy there. In my freshman year I took an upper-level creative writing class. The professor was highly complimentary of my work; I loved the class and I loved writing. I dropped the class as soon as I could.
Six months after dropping the class, I turned down an opportunity to study with a Juilliard faculty member in New York. There was a spot waiting for me in this teacher’s studio at Brooklyn College, with a good chance to transfer to Juilliard after a year or so. I was afraid, and the people on whom I relied for support and encouragement were afraid, and there were not enough other voices telling me to go.
I stopped writing altogether. I graduated college. I moved to New York, and with the support of my parents I was able to study for a year at the Manhattan School of Music. It was wonderful and terrifying and ultimately too much. And two years after I moved to the city, my violin was stolen from my apartment in a burglary. I still wasn’t writing.
I had begun – without realizing – to actively deny myself opportunities to write, yet words had begun to seep and spill out of me anyway. I scribbled and jotted on the backs of envelopes, on sticky notes and junk-mail card stock, in newspaper margins as I raced to complete the Times crossword before my last subway stop. I delighted in creating instruction sheets, letters, and lecture slides for my employer. I entered school again in a Master’s program in history and public health, collecting stacks of books to support my studies and reveling in the joys of language. I filled an entire storage box with scraps of paper and loose-leaf sheets and journals with just a few pages filled. I still wasn’t writing. I left New York.
There was a new job, a house, a baby. A different job, another baby, my dad’s death, a divorce. My mom called one day to say that she’d run into one of my high school English teachers with whom I’d ended up twice, and of whom I was quite fond. Mrs A. asked, “Is Katie writing?” My mom hadn’t been sure of how to answer. I really wasn’t writing.
The beginning of a brand-new job in a new field fell within days of my first-ever date as a single parent. My heart was broken within a few short weeks, but the broken heart was also broken ground, because the fateful encounter had been with an English teacher who’d recommended a few books. Those books led to more. I found a writing community on Facebook, then more groups. I found retreats and workshops and struggled to write, but I was, finally, writing.
A few small pieces, written for free, found online homes. I wiggled and writhed and tried to find a just-right spot. I wrote a poem about my ideal writing space and found there was no just-right spot… for anything. More tiny steps. More books. More writing.
Early this year, I joined an editors’ group. Someone I admire gave me a small job, and although I likely overdid it, I completed the work and received my pay along with some kind compliments at just the right time. I took a chance and responded to a writer looking for eyes for their short story, and they appreciated my feedback enough to offer me the work of developmental edits on their novel. I read a friend’s story for feedback and they are now interested in becoming a client. I finally began development of my writing-services website. It gets only a little bit easier when one is paid.
The slowness of this progress has not been lost on me. This has been a launch sequence well over four decades in the making. Still, I continue to write. In my cycles of grief and gratitude, of rejection and recovery, of blocking and blooming, I’ve reconnected with the deeper source of my writing: I am in love with stories. Finding a life’s truth within stories is a challenging goal, to be pursued with cautious respect. It’s okay that it has taken so long.
When learning to play the violin, I began with lines of tape across the fingerboard, temporary frets of a sort, to learn placement for pitches. Writing is the same, with its necessary start on wide-spaced paper with dotted guidelines, be they literal or figurative. In fear of failing, I allowed the guidelines to curb my enthusiasm, attempting to control each word that left my fingertips, quick-pivoting the faucet to allow drop after perfect drop. It stanched the flow nearly entirely.
By editing others’ work with intent, I’ve found my permission to marvel at how my colleagues in words can let the words out before tweaking and trimming. In donning that editor’s hat, I’ve found my way to doff it as well. My new goal is to not let myself get a word in edgewise.
Mrs. A., I hope you can hear me now from heaven. Yes, yes, I am writing. Thank you for asking.
Katie Altemus is a writer & editor and a parent of three from Chester County, PA. Stay tuned to their new website – katesawriter.com – for updates on their writing journey.