Jami Attenberg on Writing a Book, 1,000 Words at a Time


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Before I wrote my first book twenty years ago, I had a vague idea that I would eventually write one. I was writing all the time, stolen moments in cafés or on the subway, early in the morning, late in the evening, constantly churning out words. I couldn’t quite see that I was in the process of writing something that would eventually become a book. I was occasionally getting essays published, and I had put out a few zines of short stories, one with a small press. I had words bursting out of me. I only needed a place to put them.

A friend of mine said to me, “Why aren’t you writing a book yet? It’s time.” And then she offered me an opportunity: a place to live for the summer, a small cottage in Northern California on her boyfriend’s land. He had a dog that needed long walks — a big dog, a Tibetan mastiff. I saved up enough money from all my freelance jobs and headed west.

Every day I walked the big dog and I wrote 1,000 words. I also drank a lot of cheap, cold white wine and ate too much pasta and read dozens of books, and I had several miniature nervous breakdowns because I was by myself so much, and also because I was getting rid of all this emotional stuff by writing this book, stuff I hadn’t known was there but now it was out, and it was on the page, 1,000 words at a time.

I got up every morning and did it. I figured I would never have this amazing gift of time and space again. If I didn’t write this book now, then when would it happen? In the fall I would go back east, where I would crash on a friend’s couch for a while and return to work, to a contract job I hated. What if I had nothing to show for this summer?

At the end of the three months, I had an extremely rough first draft of a book. Whatever was going to happen next, at least I had done it. I had no idea what I was doing after that moment. But I had made this thing that was all mine.

Eight books later, I’ve learned a few things. You don’t need it to be summer, and you don’t need to be in a cottage in the woods. You can be anywhere and write those words. You just have to want it.

You can create a sense of isolation in your mind. You can tap into that hunger and desire to make something new. It’s all sitting right there. A pen, some paper, and your brain.

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Excerpted from 1000 WORDS: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round. Copyright @ 2024 by Jami Attenberg. Reproduced by permission of Simon Element, and imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.



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