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. TC mark

image – Chris Brown


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  • Anonymous

    I think I’m going to cry.

    • closeted writer

      musicians always call writers crybabies when you’re doing a good job. unless you actually write. in which case, it could be considered sincere.


    Awful title.

    • Jordan

      I really liked the piece, but yeah I’d say the title was an obstruction to me taking it seriously, prior to reading it.  I blame the environment here.  Mere constructive criticism.

      Good work though, that was a good read!

  • Rae

    I loved this. 

  • Anonymous

    My father has been a freelance cartoonist all his working life, and for almost fifteen years, before my mom went back to work, was the sole breadwinner of a family of four doing that. We were never rich, but for me, there is no more clear a definition of success.

    He always taught me that being an artist is being a savvy business person, and never dismissing what it is that you do. Even today, living in the house and driving the car that cartooning bought, there are people who deride his chosen profession.

    You are an exceptional writer, and this was a wonderful piece. Keep going.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh


  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffreyjamesskatzka Je Sk

    Bart, this is an excellent piece of writing, thnx!

  • Sippycup

    Stop worrying about what other people think.

  • http://twitter.com/blingless Dave P

    It’s all about the woik!

  • Jamesblake

    made my heart feel weird, emotional or something.

    great work. very interesting.


  • Joel

    I liked this, both comforting and motivating at the same time. I have been caught up in the city and it is nice to know that I’m not alone but it feels better to snap out of it.

  • m bell

    wonderfully, wonderfully written. as someone who recently left new york to go sit in total isolation and (try) to write this resonated.  i find myself missing nyc terribly but also relieved that i am not still there doing the things i didn’t really wanna do. 

  • Lynn

    Love this.

  • Reader

    fantastic, and can be applied to a lot of other goals+distractions too!

  • Wearewoodsaddle

    Please let these reflections replace such articles as 10 ways to be an irredeemable girl or a bored gay dude.

  • huh okay

    what are the challenged and rewards of living in a major city in a failing empire? what?

  • xra

    this is why you live in la, where you can seal yourself in your bubble and get shit done

  • http://fastfoodies.org Briana

    “It’s the city of broken dreams,” said a girl who used to write when she lived in San Francisco.
    good thing she doesn’t write anymore.

  • http://twitter.com/ingenuegle Egle Makaraite

    This article is gooooooood. Will take this into mind when I go back to New York.

  • Anonymous


  • Jamesowenpdx

    East coast navel gazing.

  • Juno444

    Bart Schaneman is a fantastic writer. I can’t wait until he publishes a book.

  • Juno444

    ps. and if you aren’t following his tumblr you should. regularly updated writing all the time. http://bartschaneman.tumblr.com/

    • SisterRay

      Thanks for the link! I will def be following him now!

    • SisterRay

      Thanks for the link! I will def be following him now!

  • guest

    read The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
    sounds like there are quite a few blocked artists. 

  • post-NYC

    Don’t get so hung up on a sense of location. Especially now, when where you sleep at night is less relevant than what you tweet/blog/create virally etc. I’d rather make art outside the city and do it exclusively, than come to the city with the intention of doing so and never getting around to it because I’m too busy waiting tables to pay bills. You can be a nomad–most musicians are.  Living around, but not in, NYC is an excellent way to be a productive hermit who occasionally dabbles in urban living.

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous


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