Encouragement from John Keats and Jami Attenberg

April 4, 2020
Uncertainty is a fact of life, but I’m not sure it has governed our day-to-day existence to this degree in my lifetime. It’s strange and scary not knowing what the next three, six, or nine months will look like. Kentucky’s governor, Andy Beshear, notes in his heroic daily press conferences that our uncertainty pales in comparison to World War II, where no one knew how long the war would last. We know there will be a vaccine for the coronavirus in 12 to 18 months, and that normal life will return by then or sooner. But that doesn’t make it any easier to imagine what will happen in the meantime.
The poet John Keats famously used the term “negative capability” to describe the ability of “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” a quality he felt was essential for artists. The idea of a pandemic-induced negative capability seems weird, but remembering that Keats spent much of his short life witnessing family members die of tuberculosis before succumbing to it himself at age 25 could indicate that the fragility of life factored into his aesthetics.
I dearly hope the Kentucky Women Writers Conference will take place on September 17–20, 2020, and if it does, one writer we’ll be hosting is the novelist JamiAttenberg. Best known for The Middlesteins, her six novels straddle the worlds of commercial and literary fiction, and she is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, the Guardian, and many others. In summer 2018 Jami began a movement on social media called #1000wordsofsummer that encouraged fellow writers to commit to writing 1,000 words a day over a two-week period. It was transformational for many and enabled Jami herself to complete her most recent novel. In her forties she had relocated from Brooklyn to New Orleans, and, after soaking up that city’s unique culture for a few years, undertook the challenge of writing a family drama set in her new hometown, which became All This Could Be Yours (October 2019). Read this terrific interview with her about it in the Guardian, in which she says about dysfunctional families, “We tend to blame our parents for too long.”

Jami Attenberg

Jami will teach a fiction workshop at KyWomenWriters2020 on “Grand Entrances.” She says, “Sometimes all it takes is a great first sentence to convince a reader to spend the next three hundred pages with your book. We’ll look at texts that have compelling beginnings, ones which instantly hook the reader with their irresistible plots, addictive voices, and instantly fascinating characters. Additionally, a talk on stake-building will be given. In critiques we’ll examine the first ten-twenty pages of students’ work, focusing on grabbing the attention of the reader, agent, or editor—and keeping them interested.” Knowing that New Orleans is currently one of the cities hardest hit by the coronavirus, I also wanted to pass along Jamie’s Facebook post from March 18 about her 2015 novel: “If I had to recommend one book of mine right now it would actually be Saint Mazie, historical, epistolary fiction inspired by the true story of a boozy wry sexy complicated broad who helped the homeless during the Depression.”


In a time when the dark cloud of the pandemic is making it exceedingly difficult for writers to focus and do creative work, know that you are not alone in these struggles. Take care, stay healthy at home, and best of luck with your reading and writing.
Julie Wrinn, director
The Kentucky Women Writers Conference will take place on Sept. 17–20, 2020, and registration will begin on May 29. For more information, please visit our website or call 859-257-2874. To view past issues of this newsletter, please visit my blog. To unsubscribe from this newsletter, please email your request to kentuckywomenwriters@gmail.com.