Jami Attenberg: I Came All This Way to Meet You

Jami Attenberg writes, “To fuck was divine, but to write was eternal.” In her breathtaking memoir, Attenberg shares her remarkable journey to be a writer. Even though her first few books didn’t do so well, she didn’t give up. She reflects:

Now, nearly twenty years later, I fully understand what the words do for me: 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. The calm space of my mind. I curl up in it. I love when sentences nudge up against each other, when I notice a word out of order and then put it in its correct spot. I can nearly hear a click when I slot it into place. I love making a sentence more powerful, more dramatic or moving or sad. Or when I make a sentence quiet enough that I can almost hear the sound of my own breath. More than anything, I love when a sentence makes me laugh. The words light up for me on the page, showing me what to do, where they want to go. They have always been my best friends in the world. All I need is for a few of them to show up. To soothe me.

In addition to writing, Attenberg reveals personal and intimate details of her life. I appreciate her honesty on friendships, relationships, and self-consciousness. I have to quote the following section in full to remind myself that no one is perfect:

I thought I would be happy by now. I am, for periods of time. I don’t know why I think I deserve to be happy. I’ve done so many things wrong in my life. I’ve lied to protect myself, or for my own benefit. I’ve been mean, said mean things, hurt people’s feelings, and felt justified doing it if I felt they hurt me first. I’ve been selfish, emotionally, physically. I’ve taken what I’ve wanted without asking for it. I’ve been grabby. I’ve taken the last bite. I’ve committed crimes, minor ones, and I suppose it depends on how you feel about the laws of the society anyway, but nonetheless I’ve done these things, knowingly. Stolen things, broken things, vandalized. Consumed illicit substances on both a regular and irregular basis circa 1990 to 2004, and also sometimes still during Carnival season. I’ve cried to get out of a situation. I’ve been grouchy. I’ve yelled at people, lost my temper. I’ve been unfair. I’ve had bad days and taken it out on people, strangers, and loved ones alike. One is no worse than the other. No one deserves any one else’s bad day. I’ve judged people silently and out loud. I’ve taken things in bad faith. I’ve been jealous. I’ve blamed a lot of it on drugs and alcohol, but that’s not an excuse. I have to own up to my faults.

Why do I deserve anything good at all? Is this a question I should even be asking? Why do I deserve happiness? I don’t—not more than anyone else, anyway.

But still, I want it.

I’m a better person now. I’ve grown up, I’ve wizened, I’ve matured. It is time for me to behave well. I still have to live with my guilt for the rest of my life, but the rest of my life is a long time, and I can use what’s left wisely. It is important to me to be of service to my community as best I can.

This doesn’t mean I am perfect now. I will never be perfect. This doesn’t mean I won’t still get things wrong. I have acquired too many scars to be fully healed. I have broken so many bad habits but not all of them. Even the experience of writing a book is just making one mistake after another until you’re not anymore. Every day we sit down to work we swim in a sea of our own fuck-ups. On the shore is one good sentence.

But it does mean I am trying, that I have to try every single day. I am obligated by my beliefs and the lessons I have learned to wake up and consistently try to be a good person. Even if it is not inherent within me, it doesn’t matter. I can still try. And there is no guarantee of happiness to come from this. I don’t have any control over that. I only have control of what kind of person I can be in this world.

I admire this memoir. It’s an invigorating read.

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