And Louise holds a handful of rain, tempting you to defy it.”
–Visions of Johanna, Bob Dylan
What I often saw in New York were the Stranded. Those who wanted life, energy, and culture and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else to get what they needed. Those who believed in city culture and that the only way to have a rich life was to be around a lot of people.
I sometimes think about what I would have become had I stayed in the country and not lived in cities throughout my 20s. If you had stayed where you were raised what strength would you have retained? You wouldn’t know as much about the outer world, but you also wouldn’t have lost connections to both your land and your people. I try not to torture myself over this, though. Life is a river, right? It goes where it must. The only control you really have is deciding who gets on your boat.
A few years ago I found myself walking down a street in Tver, Russia with a new friend. She was studying linguistics at Moscow State University and we were talking about her life there.
“Everyone in Russia believe Moscow is city of opportunity,” she said.
“Do you think it’s true?”
“Yes,” she said. “Is true.”
There are people who still believe that about New York City. I’m not one of them. New York made me feel naïve in a lot of other ways, but I was never naïve enough to believe this city wanted me, had room for one more, or would open a single door. Most of the doors there require a password.
When asked I told people that I was moving here because it was the place to get a job in media. People seemed to think that was a reasonable, practical idea, and then we could talk about something else. I was never foolish enough to believe this writing business would yield success based on merit of work alone.
Aside from the thespians who need stages and live audiences, artists don’t need to move to New York. Sure, there is a bit of camaraderie between you and all your struggling friends who work at your restaurant, but if you need to be around other creative people to feel like an artist then maybe you aren’t one.
Disregarding the chances at nepotism (what people like to call networking), I don’t understand why anyone who hasn’t made it yet and is serious about getting work done would want to stay there. The rent is too damn high. Your time is rarely your own. The city spreads its anxieties and its cutthroat attitude, and they’re both contagious. It’s a great city for a young professional in advertising, or journalism, or publishing, or any other career where you go to work, make your money, and leave your work at work.
For the artist working a day job there is the constant battle between life and work and there is not enough time for both. You’re never going to conquer that city, but there is a very real chance of it conquering you.
Once New York has you in its jaws you’re not getting away without losing at least a little blood. I met a lot of people who seemed stuck. People who had traveled, were cultured, who wanted to live in America and repeated, in one form or another, “how do you live anywhere else in America once you’ve lived here?” It’s true, New York is as culturally significant as any other city in the world, maybe the most significant. I understand that people want community, want to feel like they’re part of something historically significant, to be able to say “I lived there during that time.” It’s a romantic notion. Ah, to be young in Paris in the 1920s. But Brooklyn isn’t ever going to be Paris. For one thing, it’s too expensive.
If you actually want to work, to create, to get things done, leave New York. If you do move and you like city life you won’t like where you live as much. New York does city life to perfection. Another place won’t be as exciting. You’ll have less opportunities to experience city culture. But what you will have is more space to live and more time to work.
You have to fight too hard to get work done in New York. And the city wants to beat you. There is no shame in wanting to leave the pitfalls and distractions to go get things done. I’m not saying you need to go hole up in the woods and write “For Emma, Forever Ago.” I’m just saying leave the empire city to the culture obsessed, to the consumers, the 24-hour party people, the proud-to-be-New-Yorkers. It doesn’t really matter if you don’t know how to find the new vegan meatball shop in Williamsburg. New York doesn’t care if you fail. People come to town and do it all the time. Working at a coffeeshop and living in Bed-Stuy or Crown Heights, where you are too poor to really live how you want to anyway, is nothing you should fall in love with.
While it may be true that the amount of “creative types” in a city affects the general quality of life of the city’s residents, what about the quality of life of those creative types in those cities? Alicia Keys can sing all she wants about how the bright lights of New York will inspire you. People love to overstate the quality of “energy” there, but all the inspiration a metropolis can offer is valueless if you don’t have the time or discipline to render it into art. Inspiration, if you even believe it exists, is fleeting. It comes unbidden and leaves the same way. Without routine and time set aside to create, inspiration is a submarine screen door, windshield wipers on the ass of a duck.
Try it if you must. Move to New York if you want to get drunk in the best bars in the world, eat at incredible restaurants, have a lot of meaningless sex, see great live music, and feel like you live in a culturally relevant place. It’s all there. New York’s safe now. It’s economically a little better off than most of America. With a little luck and some people skills you’ll find a job and a decent place to live. But be careful when you’re making the decision. You might get caught up in all of that. You might get stranded. You might give up on what you went there to be.