On Moving To New York And Being Who You Say You Are
Last week I went to an open call for a bartender job posted on Craigslist, working for this little tapas restaurant in Park Slope. At the time of the interview there were at least ten of us there, and while we waited for our names to be called we started talking. One of the guys had been in New York for 11 years, working (and not working) in theater. One girl was an out-of-work dancer. Another guy said he was a fine artist, that he used to draw. Said he moved to New York five years ago and hasn’t really made any art since.
“I moved here to make art and now I just focus on the city,” he said. “My life in the city.”
I didn’t get that job, but I got one back waiting at a restaurant in Carroll Gardens. There I work with at least three people that “are interested in writing.”
“My dream job would to be to work as a television comedy writer. I used to write fiction. Don’t do that anymore,” one of the waiters said. “You should talk to the busser though. He writes.”
A waitress with a degree in creative writing told me “I’m not what you’d call a working writer; I write for pleasure.”
In my first four weeks here I have met five writers who say they don’t write. I’m starting to get it—it’s hard to tell people you’re an artist when you live in a place where there are a lot of people making art and getting paid to do it. Living among writers who have books and publishing contracts can be intimidating. It can make you think there is a good reason why it hasn’t happened to you.
To admit to being a writer, to being a wannabe writer, is to cast upon yourself a naiveté about the impossibility of the publishing world. People around you might think you’re silly, or worse, stupid, for trying. They might ask you questions such as:
- How old are you?
- How long have you been writing?
- Have you been published?
That leads you to ask yourself:
- Is it going to happen?
Who knows? But it for sure won’t if you never try.
I just got here, but you know what I think it is? I think people come to this town and they stop making art because they make their life their art. They don’t have time for making things because they work and they live in the city, do the city, be the city. How do you stay at home and work when there is so much out there to learn? And the more you do in the city the better you know it, the better you are at being a New Yorker. And the better you are at New York the more you are perceived as winning.
“It’s the city of broken dreams,” said a girl who used to write when she lived in San Francisco.
There are a lot of people who believe in this idea that “it just wasn’t meant to be.” They believe people can choose to be anything they want to be and they can choose incorrectly. You can have the unsuccessful actor who really should have been in finance. The farmer who was destined to be a mathematician. The writer who was born to be a truck driver.
That’s a nice idea, a comfort, to think you were born to do one thing and one thing only. If it doesn’t work out you can just say “I chose the wrong vocation. It wasn’t in the cards.”
You might even find yourself saying “I think I was really supposed to be a teacher, or a lawyer.”
That way you can tell yourself it didn’t have anything to do with lack of effort, or discipline. That it didn’t have anything to do with how you wanted to be part of a scene more than you wanted to make things.
Is the New York literary scene really a jar of tapeworms feeding off of each other, like Updike said Hemingway said? I don’t know. I’m not part of the scene. But I sense there is truth in that statement.
I’ve only been here a month and already I love this city. I want to stay here for a while, and that’s more than I can say for any of the other five cities I’ve lived in over the past eight years. I could see myself living here for five years, at least. The culture is strong (at least it is over here in Bed-Stuy), the food good, the nightlife exciting, more traps to avoid than a game of Pitfall—all the challenges and rewards of the major city in a failing empire. It’s the people here I don’t understand.
Many recent conversations about the people of New York have included the word “agenda,” followed by “everyone having one.” To not have one is deemed admirable, but it seems the savvy New Yorker will still suspect you of having one even if it’s not readily apparent. In fact, “not having an agenda” might also be construed as the agenda you’re claiming not to have. Wanting people to believe you don’t want anything from them is, really, still wanting something, isn’t it?
Under these terms, these agenda suspicions, telling people you’re a writer, or a musician, or an artist, implies you’re telling people this because you want them to come to your readings, go to your band’s show, buy your art, etc. Your agenda is to get people around you to think of you as a [fill in the blank with whatever career you have chosen].
Yet, I still don’t understand why people have trouble owning what they are or what they want to be. It’s the wanting-to-be part that’s the most troublesome, I guess. It’s embarrassing to admit that you’re not really what you wish you were. True, it’s terribly cliché to move to New York to make art. “I’m a writer and I live in New York.” “I’m a writer so I live in New York.” “Living in New York makes me a writer.” That’s not necessarily true. People have been doing this for as long as the city has been culturally relevant. The only other possibly cliché-er place might be Paris, and even that isn’t as bad as moving to Brooklyn.
In reality, living in New York might be the worst possible thing for a young writer, a writer without discipline, a writer who hasn’t taken the time to hone his skills, to learn her craft. This is the worst place to try to learn how to say no. How to turn off your phone, stay in your room, and work. You can go to school for theory, they can teach you where to put the conflict, but no one can teach you how to turn off the city. Either you learn that on your own or you don’t work.
But not working’s fine. You can always just stop calling yourself an artist. It’s easy. People move here and do it all the time.
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