When Jami Attenberg was little, her mom would hand her a pen and paper, encouraging Attenberg “to play” — “‘You were always off in your own little world. You were always thinking,’” her mom tells her later. Attenberg’s ability to immerse herself in her imagination has clearly worked out. Okay, there was that one time where she almost drifted dreamily out to sea on a raft during a family vacation, but overall learning to journey through her mind has paid off: Attenberg has published seven novels and her writing — both fiction and non — shimmers with keen pragmatic observations as well as deeply perceptible humane empathy.
These Attenbergisms happily mark her memoir, “I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home.” Her distinctive, personable voice, which shines on social media and in her writing-focused newsletters, gets a full-on outing here, with intimate glimpses of her youth — she recognized as a child that painful experiences, even broken bones, could be fodder for stories — as well as insights into her adult friendships and relationships.
Early on, Attenberg was particularly curious about familial relationships: “Family dynamics were always a grand and fascinating mystery, and I watched for unspoken nuances with the reverence of a daytime soap opera addict.” She also held an “attraction to that which was absent…. Filling in the imaginary blanks with information I did not have but found I could invent quite easily. A thing we do as writers. If we just give ourselves permission.”
Part of what Attenberg did was permit herself a peripatetic exploration of life. This is a book of journeys: she road-trips on book tour; she lives in Seattle, in Manhattan, in New Orleans; she goes to Portugal and Sicily and Hong Kong, and on family trips to the East coast. But the most tangible and pleasurable journey is the one in which she describes discovering her voice, her yearning for agency, and the myriad ways in which she achieves that desire. She’s appreciative of the knowledge she gleaned from various workplaces — “I learned a lot about people, and how to be in the world” — but she’s also honest about her lack of direction: “I tried another job and another job and another job, always searching for a place I could call home. I was creative and I was curious and there was a propulsiveness to my life — I was completely engaged in forward motion — yet I had no specific direction.”
The crystal-clarity of finding that direction is captured in a set of writerly breadcrumbs that lead Attenberg not just to uncovering her voice, but to taking charge of it:
“I spell-checked. I sent emails. I did math. I copyedited. They would find out I could write and then ask me to write something and it would only be a paragraph or two but it made me feel important and special and necessary and like I wasn’t totally wasting my life, even if I was writing something that wasn’t interesting at all, a forgettable arrangement of words, a decoration on a page…. I watched things I wrote finally exist in the world, with the recognition that no one would ever know it came from me. I was detached from the thing I was making. I had no ownership of it…. I started writing personal things on the internet. Blog posts, little essays…. I began to tune the sound of my voice…. Eventually I thought: What about my ideas? When do I own them? And once I realized that, I couldn’t stop thinking about it….”
Once she finds her voice, while there are undeniable twists along the way, new chapters proliferate. Attenberg’s determination, in one case, translates into driving solo across America on a self-propelled book-tour: “If I just hit the road, everything will be fine, this book will do well, I will be living a life that interests me, and I will be working as hard as I possibly can on my career…. I would keep driving all over America until someone bought my goddam book.” She recognizes what she wants to fight for and what is worth having; she’s also unafraid of sharing her darker moments, comforting herself during a snowstorm, imaging the worst: “‘She died on the road,’ I wrote, in my head. ‘And no one had even bought her book.’”
That knowing humor flavors her memoir. Attenberg explores being alone versus enjoying solitude; she meets a ghost; she recalls the alarming experience of a makeover at the local mall at the age of 12 (“I was never any good at coloring between the lines, let alone eyelids”); and she gets lost in Portugal with a boyfriend and poor GPS access. There’s an excellent tale about chicken noodle soup-making gone hilariously awry, and a wonderful delineation of the formative impact that her maternal grandmother — a grandmother Attenberg never got to meet — had on Attenberg as a person and a writer. In fact, pretty much all the anecdotes involving her family — people for the most part so clearly warm and inquisitive, interested and committed — left me wanting more of their stories as well as more of hers.
“I Came All This Way to Meet You” is a book about the making of writer in the best possible way — accessible, funny, illuminating. It’s a book about kindness and grief, joy and forgiveness, failures, challenges, mistakes, and hope. It’s also a terrific ode to good art and true friendship. “‘Books are your love language,’” a friend tells Attenberg. Which, as far as I’m concerned, makes “I Came All This Way to Meet You” one hell of a terrific love letter.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. You can follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home
Ecco, 272 pages, $27.99