In a time when travel can seem perilous and many people are staying close to home, it was fascinating to accompany writer Jami Attenberg on the inner and outer journeys chronicled in her autobiography, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home.
As a writer, I appreciated the book for its insights into the creative process and how engagingly Attenberg found meaning in the world around her. The book has enough adventure that it has broad appeal for those looking to explore new horizons while staying safely at home.
Attenberg is the author of seven books of fiction: Instant Love, The Kept Man, The Melting Season, New York Times bestseller The Middlesteins, Saint Mazie, and national bestseller All Grown Up. She is known for her deft storytelling about difficult families. She brings a writer’s eye for detail and an unflinching honesty to her development using the lens of travel as the central metaphor in her autobiography.
The first section, “The Long and Winding Runway,” covers her background and takes us along on an ill-fated book tour where she is met with small audiences and quickly begins to run out of money. Attenberg describes how being the “daughter of a motherless mother” heightened her attraction to “that which was absent,” and helped develop her sense of invention.
This was a great starting place for understanding a novelist whose terrain is challenging families and rocky relationships. I was interested to see how her bent toward invention filled the empty spaces in life. Much of the book’s tension comes from her skillful portrayal of the competing desires to withdraw and write or to engage with the physical world in often daring ways.
Throughout the book, Attenberg sustains a dual focus on the work and the self. Reflecting on her grandmother as she looks in the mirror, Attenberg explores both:
A desire to create another narrative than just me, just this face. It’s part of the process, as a human but also a writer, part of being an artist, this continued assessment, of breaking things down into their original parts and then putting them together in a new way. These details we inherit, can we claim them, can we recognize them? It doesn’t always feel comfortable. But if we can do it with love or humor or forgiveness or at least some generosity, some understanding of the other, it only strengthens the work. Only strengthens the self.
Her development as a writer is merged with a self-knowledge of what drives her to write, knowing she had the determination to do the job but also that writing “poked holes in me, and that is where the sadness came out.” She accepts that as part of the process, and revels in the play that comes with creation.
Attenberg is evocative as she describes accidents and recklessness that result in scars, bruises, and broken bones. These episodes and that pain serve to wake her up to the world around her. I found myself wincing as I accompanied her as she slid down a mountain and jumped into water from an impossible height.
Holed up in her apartment with a badly broken ankle, Attenberg reads Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and ruminates on the gifts writers give other writers through their work, emotional truth that is radical in its familiarity, “Sentences so crisp as to be nearly audible,” and what she calls “encouragement by example.” These beautifully written passages about the gift of strong writing held me in thrall.
The section “Brief and Dire Spasms of Turbulence” follows Attenberg’s travels to destinations across America on tour: to Lithuania to teach, Australia, Italy, Canada. Her world is full of wonders and ghosts. She makes new friends, and recovers from relationships gone wrong. Attenberg captures the ever-present tension of a restless urge to both lose and find herself by seeking new horizons, a constant push and pull between retreating into her writing and to “feel the breeze on my skin and embrace the world.”
In “A Kind of a Landing,” Attenberg paints a haunting vision of Capela dos Ossos, a 16th century chapel supported by pillars and walls of bone, in Portugal. Surrounded by thousands of bones, she experienced the closest thing she had seen to a “physical manifestation of the creative experience”:
Everything was dead . . . and yet it felt so alive to me at the same time. It was designed for thought. Alive and dead, stories everywhere.
As the book ends, Attenberg is visiting another ossuary, this time in Naples, claiming the bones as a metaphor for her life. I could hear the water dripping into a bucket and see the flickering candles. It was the culmination of the journey I had taken with her; a final frontier as she confronts herself. She returns to the power of invention. “These bones could be whatever I want them to be, whatever I need them to be. They could be any kind of life I wanted.”
I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home is a worthy journey for readers looking for insight or escape.
I Came All This Way to Meet You
By Jami Attenberg
Published January 11, 2022