Writing

A New York City Survival Guide for Writers

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Friend, you want to be a writer? Run screaming from New York City. Why? It’s mad expensive. It’s perpetually crowded. It’s overrun by zombies hypnotized by the magic powers of their smart phones. And, maybe worst of all, whole swaths of it (not least the East Village, where I somehow continue to live) have been put through the deflavorizing machine. Instead of coming here to find fellow artists, writers, freaks, and outcasts – which is what brought me here thirty years ago – it’s as if this new crop brought their self-satisfaction and normative bullshit with them. Where’s the nearest Chick-fil-A? they ask. It’s up your nose, you silly dumbbell.

Once a great place to live, New York City has broken my heart.

But it’s a boring old song, this song I’m singing. I realized what a crank I’d become a few years back, at work. One of the design guys was telling me about some fun thing from his weekend – a trip to Socrates Sculpture Park, a slice from Di Fara’s, a ride on his bike out to Coney – and I cut him short with a joy-killing rant about “the old days.” He heard me out, and then stood blinking. Yeah, he said, well, nothing’s as good as it used to be, everything’s over, he should’ve been here in the ’80s, it’s not possible to have any positive experience in New York City ever again, and so he should probably just kill himself.

Gosh, I’m sorry, I said.

Yikes! Was I turning into one of those people? I remember them from my own youth: If you had a deal on a $400-a-month Williamsburg apartment in 1991, they were the people who told you how late to the party you were: they had a deal on a $172-a-month Williamsburg apartment in 1982. You’d mention a bar you liked and they’d tell you how it used to be great but how lately it had become tragically mediocre. To any positive gesture you made they had a nasty counter-thrust. Basically, what they were doing was scolding you for the sin of enjoyment.

I thought of this very thing one afternoon last year, walking down Sixth Avenue from some weird work event with a friend, a lovely, thoughtful, canny young woman who (impossible to explain this) used to be a reporter for Fox News in Texas. She pointed to one of the XYZ buildings and told me about a job interview she’d gone to when she was just starting out half a dozen years before. She was late and ran sweating in the August heat. The way she talked conveyed the beauty and surprise – the juice, the moxie – of that great young moment. This can be yours, this city, because you want it so badly. I could’ve run my mouth about the many adventures I’d had in that span of blocks, but instead I shut up and listened to her. And I saw it with her, her ambition and her wonder.

Each experience like this gives me back some of my city. Each makes me remember why I came here: I’m seeing it through new eyes. Also, what are the chances I would have met this truly unlikely person anywhere but New York?

So, writer, stay here. Persevere. And you know what? Get a day job. What? How can I say such an appalling thing? Well, for one, you’ll need it to afford your foolishly expensive rent, but perhaps more important, you may end up as lucky as I am by finding at your job people whom you love – and who somehow love you back. These people might also say extraordinary things such as: “Chunky Monkey is my jam,” or “She’s a steamin’ older lady,” or “I think I put my bra on backward,” or the immortal, “Well, tell them they can go fuck a HAM.”

All of this will inform your writing, I promise you. And if your day job is sometimes so stressful and insane-making that you feel you could rip a phonebook in half, consider the upside: the contrast will make the time spent doing your fiction-writing feel like an absolute cakewalk.