2013, on a morning in Nkewelle, I felt a rush that now, three years after, feels alien to me. I had completed my first piece of fiction and was eager to share my creation. I posted the story on Naija Stories—a website containing stories posted by a lot of young Nigerian writers—under a pseudonym and left for work at the foot of the hill where I taught Physics to secondary school students.
I had completed the story the previous night and, after few corrections, thought it was ready to wow the world. This was a couple of months after I opened a blog to document my experiences as a youth corps member. I wanted to expand my knowledge of the craft, to push it to its recognisable limits, and writing short fiction seemed like the way to achieve that rather than waiting for life events to document for my blog. I needed practice, wanted to put Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory to the test, so I set a target of writing a piece of short fiction every week in addition to my blog posts.
Books have always been the love of my life, but writing had, before then, just been a way to rescue my spotty memory. For the first time in my little life, from the top of that hill in Nkewelle, I was writing with the expectation that someone somewhere was going to read my work—never mind that the average number of people reading each piece on my blog was just a little over fifty. That story was published a few days after I sent it to Naija Stories. The result was a disaster.
In my eagerness to have people see what I could do, I’d created a story with multiple holes, each the narrative size of a boulder. I also changed the name of one of the story’s main characters mid-way without effecting the change in the previous mentions of the name. I had no editors, and did not yet have the wisdom of letting time and its capacity to imbue me with clarity edit my work. Writers on the website, many whom I’ve now met later but have the pseudonym to thank for anonymity, made comments on the piece. One or two of them were kind, others were caustic in the way writers can be when they see the work of a dilettante who irritates them. That was the last time I posted on Naija Stories.
I was ashamed, but still had time to burn and more desire to see what I could make of writing. So, I continued to read and write. Not long after that, I found Rebecca Postupak’s Flash Friday and that became the real start of my life with fiction. Tessa Hadley, in a Windham Campbell conversation with Hilton Als and Helen Garner, asked, “Is there anybody who writes in the face of “no”?” Flash Friday was the place where I found my yes.
One of the most remarkable things about the Flash Friday community was the patience with which the writers read one another’s stories. They were at different stages of their writing life, yet reacted to one another’s work, not just with kindness, but a sincerity I would later find scarce as I became more engaged in Nigerian creative spaces. I wrote fiction to the Flash Friday prompt every week, even if I didn’t always post such stories before the deadline. I did this for a year, never posting my fiction anywhere else. In March 2014, I left Anambra state for home, not confident enough in my fiction writing to share with other people, but knowing writing was something I was now capable of.
Over the next few months after the end of the Youth corps programme, I wrote a lot, and read even more. I sent some of my work to Tolu, a friend who was a lot better at the craft and ready to share his comments with me without bullshitting. Sometimes he would highlight a sentence and insert an exclamation of pleasure beside it. Other times he would tell me a story was essentially trash. I made a point of never questioning Tolu’s judgment. If he thought a story was bad, I took his word for it.
It is difficult to define the moment I stopped being so scared of making the error I did on Naija Stories and became confident enough to send my work out. I know it must have something to do with someone I had so much respect for telling me that if I compiled my blogposts into a book and published it, he would eagerly promote it. There are people who don’t write as good as you do who have published books, he said. Of course I knew my writing was still criminally deficient, but I couldn’t dismiss his comment as rubbish. I went back to my blog posts, printed out the good ones, and edited them vigorously. After that process, I concluded they were not worthy of being published. I also needed to start putting my engineering degree to work at the time and, since I’d stopped blogging, toyed with the idea of putting my energies to work in something other than writing. Then I saw Tope in church and told her I was going to stop writing. She threatened to kill me if I did. Those two moments stand out to me now because I wasn’t fishing for their reinforcing thoughts like writers are wont to do when in need massage for fragile egos in the face of a stupid life decision. They just liked my work in ways I hadn’t.
Later in 2014, at the Port Harcourt World Book Festival, I met two writers who I’d spent a better part of the year gushing about to my friends. They both spoke to me, at different parts of the day, like I was someone who knew what he was doing. I didn’t know what I was doing. I now know that this experience was a rarity. One quickly realises that writers are, with a few exceptions, incapable of grace in direct proportion to their ability to produce it on the page. I knew I was capable of recognising good work, but was equally confident nothing I’d written could be called that. Of course I was wrong; I know that now. Daily, however, I still look at my work and wonder how people let me get away with writing such terrible sentences. It’s 2016, and it is just this year, after a series of excruciating lows, and exhilarating highs, that I have become confident in my ability to write without being obliviously stupid on the page.
I still do my best work in obscurity, in spaces where adulation is not expected. My ideal readers are friends whose opinion of my work I trust more that the high praise of any stranger. This, also, is a problem, for it’s impossible to publish in obscurity if you’re not named Ferrante. (Even Elena is discovering how much the world is against her desire for secrecy.)
This need for obscurity sometimes creates an inflated sense of value—it’s basic economics. I have just one published short story of decent length, and often remind myself of this fact when I meet strangers who think I’m capable of good things. There’s a constant battle between freeing the part of me that wants to write and this self-awareness with its ability to cripple the creative process. It’s partially the reason I still spend two years writing 2500 word stories. This struggle often feels like self-sabotage, but the mere awareness of a fault has never been enough to overcome it. And given the choice is between this reticence and blind narcissism, I know I’ll still choose the former.
Tessa Hadley asked that question about anyone writing in the face of a “no” in response to an anecdote by Hilton Als, which he ended with this statement: “There had to be one person, whether it was an English teacher who was like a mother, or your mother, or an aunt, someone who looked at you and said, “Yes.””
In the three years since I started writing on that hill in Nkwelle, I’ve had the priviledge of people saying “Yes” to my work: family who now understand, and have accepted, that I have a creative life outside of the drudgery of the career advancement they’re familiar with; old friends who see my work online, keep quiet, but make sure I know of their admiration when we meet at weddings (for that is where we all meet these days); new friends who have become supporters of my work in ways I have come to accept as a blessing; communities like Flash Friday, where I’ve been lucky to see people say Yes to one another’s work without a hint of prejudice or pretense. But even in all these, the person whose yes I’m still waiting on, hoping for, is me.
© IfeOluwa Nihinlola 2016
IfeOluwa Nihinlola writes essays and short stories and has been featured in online magazines such as Afreada, Omenana, Klorofyl, and Litro. He works as an editor and is an inaugural fellow of aKoma’s Amplify fellowship. He is a fan of Zadie Smith, is looking for a replacement for Pringles as muse, and blogs at ifenihinlola