Candy on the Lower East Side

Hi friends.

#1000wordsofsummer starts in a month and, starting next week, we’re going to spend a few letters prepping for it. The Slack is now open for business again, and if you haven’t used it before, you can access it by following this link. People use it to post their daily word count during #1000wordsofsummer, find accountability partners and writing groups (highly recommended right now!), and post pictures of their pets, which I’m not going to say is the thing I’m most interested in, but I do like it an awful lot.

I am also adding a new category for this year’s #1000wordsofsummer: success stories. Because even though this project is about just getting the words down in the moment, after four years, I’m curious if anything bigger has come out of it for all of you.

As we ramp up for the biggest two weeks of my writing year, I was thinking this morning about the good writing can do for us all. I have talked a lot about how helpful it can be emotionally, how good it is for our brains. For me, it’s my way of feeling like I’m communicating with the world, and it’s how I process my feelings. But what I was specifically focusing on today was all the happenstance and magic that can come from it.

Sometimes you meet people years later that have read just one thing you’ve written and still remember it, and it impacted their life in some small way. Sometimes it opens doors for you, creates opportunities that wouldn’t have existed had you not taken that risk of sitting down and putting your time into being vulnerable and expressive.

Sometimes it creates bad magic, too. Hearing from exes of mine when I wrote about getting a hysterectomy, I was like…ew, no thank you. But for the same piece I’ve heard from countless women about how helpful it was, and it has meant a lot to me to reach people in that way. (You can’t control the direction of the magic all the time, folks!)

The most wonderful and surprising results from a book of mine will always be what happened after I published Saint Mazie. The novel was inspired by the real life of Mazie Phillips, the proprietress of a Depression-era movie theater on the Bowery, who was profiled in Joseph Mitchell's classic Up in the Old Hotel. (If you haven’t yet read Up in the Old Hotel, I highly recommend it. It is an immaculate example of storytelling.)

I took liberties with inventing the fictional story of her life, but I did as much research as I could on her with what limited documentation was available. I didn’t know how to find anyone who knew her, and I didn’t even have a photograph of her. I just had various visions of her in my mind. She was a boozy, dramatic broad, I knew that. She wasn’t always easy. But she looked out for her neighborhood, the population experiencing homelessness in particular, and also the children, who she used to give candy to in the afternoons after their school let out on the Lower East Side.

After the book was published, to my great delight, I started hearing from people who had known her in their youth, now in their sixties and seventies by then. And people who knew her from Coney Island, where she ran a ride. And a man who worked sometimes in his family’s flower shop, where she used to stop and pass the time. Suddenly I was privy to these tiny, nuanced details about this woman that I would never have known otherwise. They remembered the makeup she wore, and her little dog. I even was invited to speak at the very same school where the children used to gather around her in the afternoons for candy — by a woman who had been one of those children.

I think about Mazie all the time — and not just because a photo of her finally surfaced, of which I have a print in my living room. I think about her spirit a lot. I carry her with me, all the messy flaws, but all the good intentions, too. I suppose that’s one more magical thing writing can do for you — introduce you to people you have needed to know your entire life.

I’ll end today’s letter with this image, and a thank you to those of you who have subscribed, which is absolutely not necessary — this newsletter wants to be free! — but is much appreciated.

Have a gorgeous day.


You are reading Craft Talk, a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to support Roots of Music.