In this exclusive extract from her memoir I Came All This Way to Meet You, Jami Attenberg offers her take on the power of reading, and the risk one must take with any creative endeavour.
In the middle of all this, a woman I knew who worked in sales in publishing, Rebecca, reached out to me and told me she would send me a few things to read to keep me company. The act of a real booklover. (Soon after, Rebecca would go on to co-found one of the finest bookstores in New York, Greenlight Books.) A few days later a box showed up, inside a half dozen paperbacks; an interaction with another human being—the UPS man—was an unexpected perk. One of those books was Olive Kitteridge, which had not yet won the Pulitzer Prize. My scattered travels had distracted me from it before that moment. I read it in a day, following the sunlight from room to room, clutching it in my hands. Shuffling on my crutches. Trying to reduce my pill count for the day. Thinking about structure, thinking about character, thinking about landing every single emotional moment no matter how small. It was the first time I had felt my brain working properly in weeks. As if I had forgotten who I was entirely and then there was a book to remind me. I had received the message.
In fact, we receive so much from other writers when they show us how it’s done. When they position a character’s heart directly on the page for us, when they’re inventive in form or structure, or emotionally true in a way that feels radical in its familiarity. Or when their sentences are so crisp as to be nearly audible, like a piece of paper torn in two—all of this shows us how to do it ourselves, how it’s possible, but also it emboldens us, releases us from our fears about our own work. An encouragement by example. We learn from them, but also, they tell us we can. Without even knowing it. Enter here. Start here. Begin now. This is why it’s always important to be reading. This is why we must always chew on the words of others. It’s nutrition. Eat your dinner.
When I was done with Olive Kitteridge, I thought: Oh, this is how I can write a book about where I grew up. A tiny, boring suburb interesting to no one. Except it’s all interesting if the emotions are real. It’s not about the place (although it is about the place), it’s about who lives there, and it’s about family. It’s about America, but if you do it right, it can be about anywhere. And all the chapters could feel separate from each other and yet connected at the same time until they build up into one complete feeling. I could write that, I thought.
The thing with being a novelist—or really with any creative endeavor—is we have to willingly enter into the not knowing. We have to embrace that fact that there are myriad nuances to be unfolded. Characters we haven’t met yet, actions we haven’t invented. Thousands upon thousands of words waiting to be chosen. If I know how a story ends when I start writing a book, I throw it aside. It’s not worth writing if there are no surprises. When you slide down a mountain, or jump off a cliff, you accept the not knowing. Don’t tell me how it ends; let me see for myself. The trick of life is understanding that even when we are simply standing to the side, as I did as a child near the ice, watching other people taking risks, we are engaging in the not knowing, too. Everything is a risk. That’s what’s hitting so many people so hard right now, here, as we approach May 2020. They didn’t know that they didn’t know.
Jami Attenberg is the New York Times best-selling author of seven books of fiction, including The Middlesteins and All This Could Be Yours. She has contributed essays to the New York Times Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Times, and the Guardian, among other publications. She lives in New Orleans.