I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home
Jami Attenberg’s (The Middlesteins) new memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, is sort of a manifesto to the struggling writer. Well, at least it was for me. Each chapter explored the complications of pursuing creativity while getting knocked down in the process, both by the industry and by self-doubt, only to finally achieve some success and wonder what it all really means.
To say this book was a delight to read is putting it lightly. As a writer, I felt instantly connected to Attenberg’s notions of countless day jobs to pay the bills, to write as a freelancer but with no real “ownership” to the words on the page. Her internalizing over comparing herself to others: the stable ones with the 9-5 jobs and health insurance that’s not paid out-of-pocket. The feeling as though everyone else in your life is progressing as you continue to stay the same, fighting to create and searching for others—an agent, a publisher, a reader, or two—that are as passionate about your words as you are. The realization that stability will never be for you no matter how many freelance gigs that don’t pay on time or the contract jobs that don’t ever extend. The flexibility to create, the headspace that isn’t bogged down with the humdrum of corporate America is worth more to most writers than anything steady. Even if we have to suffer in the process: “I was born a writer. I knew that I would live with a certain type of heartache forever, that it had been ingrained in me since birth somehow.”
Attenberg isn’t shy about speaking on the sacrifices that come with writing. Stability is by far a big one, and the shame that follows when you aren’t making as much money as you think you should. The envy of others with their spacious, sturdy homes is a true and honest feeling that Attenberg expresses, not with any real anger or excessive longing but more with insight and understanding: “Grateful to know a person with a guest room. What power they had. Imagine me thinking, I will never have this right before I pass out for the night, the shame disappearing for the moment, consumed by collapse.”
There is also the conversation of loneliness as a writer. We are solitary creatures. We work alone and prefer it that way. Trying to write around others, in a cubicle no less, is anything but inspiring. It’s essential for us to be in our own space in order to truly create, to get lost in the world we are building, the characters we are bringing to life. And while we have the comfort of our stories and the many books that no doubt surround us all in our apartments, we are alone, and that can oftentimes lead to loneliness.
While Attenberg opens up about her own feelings of loneliness and not having many “true” romantic partners, she goes on to explain her profound love for her friends, the very ones who take her into their big homes to provide the space and comfort to write (or sleep very, very well). “The stabilizing force was this: friendships, the people I met, the relationships I built.” I loved how deeply Attenberg cared and appreciated her friends and how they felt the same way toward her. Not only were they a continuous comfort when she traveled but also comfort after an especially difficult heartbreak: “Boyfriends have to pick you up at the airport. Friends want to pick you up at the airport.” I, too, went through a similar hard time that brought an even deeper appreciation for the friends in my life, the ones I’m surrounded by every day in the city, feeding me pasta and cookies, and the ones out of state who pick me up (and drop me off) at the airport without any twitch of resentment. A writer may need her books, but she can’t do without her friends.
The memoir also dives into being a female in America, but more specifically, being a female writer in America. The anxiety and shame as we age with our “loss” of womanhood when no longer fertile. The stress of being “seen” and putting ourselves together to look respectable, presentable for people who want to talk to us, yes, but also to take us seriously and buy our books. Attenberg opens up about all the planning behind the dresses she wore on her book tours while the white male writers at cocktail parties stumbled in with wrinkled shirts and zero concern about their image. It’s exhausting to acknowledge all the thought women need to give to our appearance just to be accepted. Dressing too sexy means “she’s asking for it” but dressy too reserved makes a woman appear unapproachable. When can it just be about the work, the drive, the words we ladies so diligently put on the page?
While Attenberg’s love for friends is strong, so is her love for living in the city—“I never ran out of ideas living in New York”—even when she could hardly afford it, even as she struggled to decide to finally leave. I too, have struggled with similar feelings, ones I never thought I’d have after finally moving to New York several years ago. But it wasn’t the last two years that I started getting that itch. No, I was more than willing to ride the pandemic out solo in my apartment. It was the recent months during the latest Omicron wave, when a long-term relationship failed, and all my freelance and contract jobs expired, that I wondered whether New York is still where I belonged. Attenberg knows all too well what it’s like to start over, as it’s another prominent theme explored in the book, and one I can relate with, along with so many others. That pivotal moment in time when everything is clear, that change needs to occur one way or another: “I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do or how to do it or what it meant for me to start over again; I just knew it was time for me to go.” But throughout all her travels and stumbles, Attenberg walked about with some incredible journeys and self-reflections. Things do change, we can absolutely change, but it’s the hard times that help mold us and our art.
I find I’m still teetering in that limbo state Attenberg speaks about, without any real clue as to my future (whatever that even means these days), but as I keep moving forward, as the freelance gigs begin to trickle back in and the words get scribbled back on the page once more, I, too, realized something: I may not be through with New York just yet.