“No fantasy is wrong,” Jami Attenberg writes in her memoir I Came All This Way to Meet You, released in January of 2022 by Ecco Books and Serpent’s Tail (UK). No fantasy is wrong—“As long as we recognize it is just that.”
She’s talking about America—and about enjoying the idea of Davenport, Iowa, while on tour for a novel that doesn’t sell—but as I gobbled up the rest of the memoir, I couldn’t help attaching this line to the act of writing nonfiction. I often think of the essay as a cocktail of fantasy and curiosity, and Attenberg’s language struck me as a precise way of describing that intersection: fantasy (i.e., archive, memory, or something in between) and the recognition that this fantasy is not real (i.e., our curiosity about what might be more real, more true—which includes research, speculation, and so many other wonderful tactics we use as nonfiction writers to discover, identify, and process on the page).
Many reviews have already celebrated how I Came All This Way renders the writing process and the process of coming to terms with what it means to be a writer. As I read, I recognized the consistent tensions between wildness and control, between chaos and constraint and submission, that characterize the writing life.
“I believe that one must arrive at an intersection of hunger and fear to make great art,” Attenberg writes. “Hunger to succeed and create something brilliant and special and affecting. Fear that your life will remain just as it is—or worse—forever.”
We write to change our own lives, or we write to remind ourselves that our lives are the way they are for a reason, but either way, writing nonfiction is an act of contradiction, of affirmation and refusal. Fantasy and pragmatism, hunger and fear. Specificity and universality.
“Our stories are all the same,” Attenberg reminds us. “It is just how you tell them that makes them worth hearing again.”
Fantasy itself—the faculty, not the genre—is a tug of war between the private and the public. We might label certain individual, personal fantasies for the first time after discovering that other people also harbor them, or we might form a shared fantasy of a public entity—like the United States, and what it stands for—out of our individual desires for success, community, or pride (however misplaced). Or perhaps it’s a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum, in which it’s impossible to untangle the personal and the universal. At phoebe, we love to see essays that grapple with these questions: how do our experiences shape our ideas about the world? How do our ideas about the world shape the stories we tell ourselves about our experiences? What makes you hungry? What makes you afraid? How does your story fit into a larger tapestry or disrupt it?
I had the privilege of chatting via email with Attenberg, our nonfiction judge for phoebe’s 2022 spring contest. Read on for her perspective on what inspires her to write nonfiction and what grips her when she sits down to read an essay.
Lena Crown: I’m curious about your process when it comes to writing nonfiction.
Jami Attenberg: The dream scenario for writing nonfiction is when some kind of obvious story falls in your lap, and you can see the shape of it so easily that it just falls effortlessly out of you and onto the page. What’s more likely (and perhaps wiser) is to sit and brew and stew with events for a while, because I’ve found looking back I have more perspective and insight on a matter than if I tackle it right away. Regardless, I try to take notes in the moment—even if “notes” sometimes means just a text to a friend. I am attracted to writing stories that I think will be compelling and valuable and hopefully entertaining in one way or another to a bigger audience than just myself. Intimacy and catharsis are wonderful things, but I’m interested in whether or not it might be relevant to others, too.
LC: What excites you about work that falls into the category of ‘essay’?
JA: We’re in an era of knowing the personal stories of everyone we know—whether we like it or not. So it’s of course the storytelling that matters, because I almost feel like I’ve heard everything. I’m always excited by beautiful sentences and essays that are cleanly structured but with perhaps a small amount of trickery or inventiveness or surprise. That said, the intention of an essay can unfold as we read it, as if we are reading a mystery, but we must always get the sense the author is in control of where we are going. One last thought: fearlessness and openness are two admirable qualities in a writer, but I tend to be turned off by things that are written purely for shock value or to garner attention.
has written about food, travel, books, relationships and urban life for The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, the Sunday Times, Slate, and others. All This Could Be Yours was published in 2019 by HMH Books and Serpent’s Tail (UK), as well as in Italy, Germany, China, and Brazil. Her work has been published in a total of sixteen languages. Her debut collection of stories, Instant Love, was published in 2006, followed by the novels The Kept Man and The Melting Season. Her fourth book, The Middlesteins, was published in October 2012. It appeared on The New York Times bestseller list, and was published in ten countries in 2013. A fifth book, Saint Mazie, was published in 2015 and has been optioned by Fable Pictures. Her sixth book, All Grown Up, was published in 2017 and was a national bestseller, appearing on numerous year-end lists. Her memoir, I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home, was published in January 2022 by Ecco Books and Serpent’s Tail (UK). She lives in New Orleans, LA.
is phoebe’s nonfiction editor. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Guernica, Narratively, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review, North American Review, and The Offing, among others. She is currently living outside Washington, D.C., while finishing up her MFA, working on two books, and writing for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Find her on Twitter at @which_is_to_say.