Going Home With Jami Attenberg
One writer's journey feeds another's
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A Good Week Is Fun To Find
This week was a good week. I finished rewriting the opening chapters to my novel and now I feel on slightly more solid ground for the rest of it. I started Italian lessons online. Frida actually made it past one BIG DOG this week without falling completely apart. As for me, I read a few headlines and did not fall completely apart.
Then, a few minutes before sitting down to write this week’s newsletter I finished Jami Attenberg’s new book: I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing My Way Home. I didn’t plan to read it so soon after it arrived - I’ve got other books that have been waiting longer. I pre-ordered the memoir ages ago, as much out of a desire to support a writer whose work, directly and indirectly, has helped me with my own. It arrived Tuesday, the day it was launched into the world. I opened it and fell in.
If you are a writer, you may already know and follow Jami Attenberg. If you are a reader, you may have read one of her seven books. If not, hang in, I’ll tell you about the ones I loved and why.
Show And Tell At the Salon
The first time I’d ever heard of Jami Attenberg was sometime between 2015 and 2017 when she came to a San Diego beauty salon that had once been a gas station. That evening, it was a literary salon. A few other writers read stories they’d finished and had either published or were about to publish. When Attenberg’s turn came, she fished a notebook out of her bag and began to read a handwritten scene that had never seen the light of day. She read about a woman in a New York apartment on a date with a man she didn’t really know ending in low-stakes sex that left me with an ache and a desire to know more. The scene was funny, sad, and raw.
The woman became the protagonist in Attenberg’s novel All Grown Up which was published in March of 2017. Because I don’t have a clear fix on the date, I can’t tell you what stage the novel itself was in when Attenberg read that evening. All I know is that the reader in me was fascinated, hooked by this glimpse into what felt like a behind-the-scenes view of a book I would want to read. The writer in me was struck by the vulnerability of what she had done - shown a bunch of strangers her writing when it was in a raw state, unfinished. That took confidence, I thought, a kind of vulnerability and bravery that I respected and for which I was grateful. It also showed how trusting in the act of writing can lead the writer to clarity, to light the way ahead even if none of the words makes it into print.
Like any other writer I’m a bit of a pilot fish – those swimmers that follow sharks and feed off whatever the larger, stronger fish throw off. I was and am looking to others who do what I do to see how they make it all work. We go to readings, and follow authors on social media because we like their stories, yes, but also to mine their experience for anything that may help. Attenberg understands this and has embraced it with initiatives like her popular #1000wordsofsummer and newsletter Craft Talk. She resists the pedestal and instead wades into the fray as a peer – willing to share what she has learned and how she has learned it: the hard way.
Well acquainted with the solitary aspects of living and working as a writer, Attenberg also understands the value of community and has not only developed her own circle of support and friendship but has created a sense of community that thousands can be part of. When we read her, we feel she’s in it with us, all doing the work together somehow, even though we are in our respective lairs, usually, and just as usually, working alone. Over three decades, this has led to seven books, countless essays, nearly 37 thousand followers on Twitter and thousands of subscribers to Craft Talk and participants in the now annual #1000wordsofsummer
Her memoir, I Came All This Way To Meet You, provides a glimpse of what it took for Attenberg to arrive where she is today and how writing, time and time again, provided a home for her even when she was sofa surfing at the age of forty:
“...when I write, it’s a place I can go to feel safe. It has always worked that way for me, ever since I was a child. The safety of a sentence. The sensation when I push and play with the words is the most pure I will ever feel.” - Jami Attenberg, I Came All This Way To Meet You
Perhaps most impressive though, is that the book pulses with pride, desire, and a clear-eyed grasp of the realities that comes with the choice to write. No false modesty. No holding back. This was captured well in this week’s review of I Came All This Way to Meet You in the New York Times:
“Attenberg’s objectives, her pride and her desire fill every page of this book. I, for one, found it a relief. She has the writer’s fine-tuned sense of her own place in the literary cosmos — and, unlike most of us, she says it out loud, as in this passage from a chapter about teaching at a literary workshop in Lithuania: “I was a newly moderately successful writer. I have friends who are famous writers, friends who have sold millions of copies of their books.” Attenberg continues: “I was not that. There were three cafes in Brooklyn where someone might recognize me, plus my parents’ gated community in Florida, where my mother had thrust my books in the hands of every neighbor within spitting distance of the pickleball court. What did being moderately successful get me? A low-paying teaching gig in a foreign country. (It still sounds pretty good now.)” - Clair Dederer, New York Times
After Attenberg’s reading in the beauty salon, I found her outside in a folding chair with a box full of her books at her feet. She looked a little tired - she’d driven down from LA in traffic and was headed back there as soon as the event was over and everyone had gone home, but she smiled and was kind to me. As I now know from reading her memoir, this is what she has done for most of her writing life - whatever it takes. She writes, she sells, she drives, she flies. For years, she put herself and her writing out there until she got published and then, once she got published, she doubled down on doing whatever it took to make sure the books made it to readers. Her memoir reveals what this journey cost her, what it gave, where it has led her as a writer and a human being.
I didn’t know then that her third book, The Melting Season, almost killed her publishing career. I didn’t know that a professor had told her years back to give up on writing fiction. A mentor told her that as an artist she needed to give up thoughts of owning a home of her own and that during her 40th year, she slept in twenty-six locations in seven months while she sublet her apartment for the money. She writes about being alone, about the friendships that provided stability in her life, about the scars inflicted by others and those she inflicted on herself. She writes about the home that writing has provided for her all her life and about the home she finally owns now in New Orleans and how that makes her feel. The story is not told chronologically but in a series of essay-like chapters that reflect how these life journeys typically go: lots of switchbacks, lots of detours, a certain amount of revisiting certain problems and conflicts until we get them right. It’s absorbing if not always comfortable.
As I read, I kept asking myself – how far would I go? How many times have I shied away from making a full-throated claim to the writing because of all the things I might have to let go of? What about you?
Here are some more links:
Craft Talk and #1000wordsofsummer - a newsletter that rose out of the popular #1000wordsofsummer writing community focused on craft, encouragement, and the real life of the writer.
The Writer’s Dog — We asked for an interview with Sid, Jami’s dog, but she declined saying that this piece in The Cut pretty much covers everything she has to share about him. He’s got a killer smile which you can also find in many variations with updates on Instagram and Twitter.
“Rejection Gave Me A Fresh Start, A New Year” - The Guardian - Attenberg wrote this essay for The Guardian earlier this month.
Jami Attenberg: The Novels
Have you read any of Jami Attenberg’s novels? What did you think?
When I found Attenberg after her reading a few years back, I bought a copy of her novel, The Middlesteins I didn’t know it was the book that revived her publishing career. All I knew is that the opening pages would not let me leave it behind. I went home, devoured it and then bought both St. Mazie: A Novel - and her collection of short stories, Instant Love.
The Middlesteins is a masterpiece of voice, structure that is funny, poignant, totally unsentimental yet finds the warm beating heart in a family that is a mess. The story centers around Edie, the matriarch whose obesity has led to a health crisis. The problem is compounded when her husband of many years leaves her. The magic of this story lies in how Attenberg tells it – through the eyes of each person as they grapple with the feelings and conflicts sparked by these events. The family alters but, also, it survives.
St. Mazie: A Novel - is based on a character who was first described in an essay by Joseph Mitchell whose wonderful collection of New Yorker essays covering 1920s and 30s Manhattan Up in the Old Hotel. I have that book and loved it;
I’ve also read All Grown Up, a novel about Andrea Bern, a woman who survived a tumultuous childhood and in her thirties is single and childfree by choice. Without the milestones of marriage and parenthood, though, her path to adulthood feels uncertain. Her journey takes a turn when her niece is born with a heart defect. Attenberg tells this story in a collection of vignettes. I was curious about this novel because of the scene Attenberg read – and I am glad I read it but I did not love it the way I loved The Middlesteins or Saint Mazie. I loved Attenberg’s writing - her sharp eye, gift for communicating so much with such economy is amazing.
All This Could Be Yours. I own but still have not read this novel even though I’ve started it a few times. I guess the timing has not been right even though it focuses on exactly the kinds of family dynamics that usually pull me right in. It’s something to look forward to.
Next Week (If I Don’t Lose My Nerve)
I’ve been looking through my own scraps, journals, and rough drafts and wondering how much they can show me about the journey I’m making. I’m seeing a few things I’d like to share. Maybe. I’m planning to pick a few excerpts and share them along with how I see them now. It will be a step towards providing some of the original stories that would be welcomed, according to the Spark Survey.
I’ve also been going over other feedback from survey and an idea for a discussion group that came up in the comments from last week’s newsletter (Middlemarch anyone?). I am looking forward to incorporating some of these ideas into the newsletter. We can, I hope, talk about that more next week too.
That’s it for this week. Let me know how you are, what you’re thinking about, and what you’re reading. If you are looking for a book, all of the book links in this newsletter will take you to the Spark Community Recommendations Page where sales support local bookstores. Any commission we earn will go towards the support of a literacy program chosen by the community.
Ciao for now.
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