The Question of New York

Hi friends.

I've been in New York this week, visiting friends, having a few meetings. Running around town and absolutely loving it because I can't believe I get to see all these people's faces again. I have been wildly (and perhaps overly) enthusiastic and keep describing the feeling, for lack of a better or more original or even frankly contemporary expression, as if I were on ecstasy. It's just heightened and textural and highly vibrant. Everyone looks so beautiful to me. I missed them so much.

And, of course, there's the city itself, too. Another face I missed. It’s quieter now at the moment. Tentative and tender and bruised. But not down for the count, I don’t think. Its heart is thrumming like mad.

New York is the place I came up. When I showed up here in my twenties, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had a vague idea of writing, but no idea how to achieve those dreams. Being a writer was what fancier people than myself did. Whenever I went to a reading, I was always so impressed by how put together everyone was. So confident in a black blazer. I was such a dirt bag. We all ended up smoking cigarettes outside at the end of the night though. We could all tap into the same line of anxiety.

Pre-pandemic, when I was doing more events, a question I got asked on occasion was whether it was important to move to New York if one wanted to be a writer. I understand the question completely: it's where all the publishing houses are, literary agencies, plus plenty of universities, top writing programs, media companies, advertising agencies, places to make connections and find work.

I had a fruitful New York experience in the early aughts: It was a place where I met a young assistant editor at a party one night and she helped me get an agent who ended up selling my first book. I got deeply inspired by walking the streets, and still do. I went to parties, I ran a reading series, I read at other people's reading series, I drank, I flirted, I gossiped, I nodded furiously at other things people were saying because they were blowing my mind. I was on occasion extremely socially awkward but so was everyone else in the room. I loved that delicious terror of walking into a party full of anxious people who loved books.  

The truth is that all the friends I made I would not trade for anything and having access to them and their brains, grabbing a quick drink here and there or a conversation in a dark corner, was instrumental to my growth as a person and a writer. But this was when the internet was nascent and not everyone was on it or understood its potential. You can use the internet now to change your life. Someone can like a tweet of yours and by the end of the day you can sell an essay or be asked to submit a proposal. You can build writing groups out of thin air. I don’t think you can learn how to be a writer off the internet. And the discourse is a time-wasting trap. But from a business perspective you can make a lot of things happen.

Look, you can write anywhere. You can meet practically anyone you want online now, agents, editors, other writers. You can create a cohort in your DMs. Zoom readings aren't the same as in-person readings, but in terms of getting access to information and ideas, it's a good place to start. You can come visit this city, run around town if you like, and it will feel exhilarating (and also so damn expensive), and maybe you will meet someone that will change your life a little bit and you will feel grateful to New York for it, and you won't be wrong.

But where are you really getting your work done? At home, or in the library, or in your office. In your mind, in your notebook. That you can do anywhere. The life you want is wherever you want it to be. You can find your people all over the world.

I still think face-to-face meetings are best, of course. Coming to the city this week has been deeply restorative. My fucking gorgeous friends, I love them. And taking a stroll through Brooklyn with my good-hearted and charming publicist was something I'll remember forever. And I get to have lunch with my editor tomorrow — I can’t believe I get to see her. How will I forget any of this week?

Things will pick up again — I am extremely sure of this. Offices are opening up soon enough and there will be literary events and festivals and book parties again in this city and someday we won't think too much about the quiet of the last year. (I'm only now just admitting to myself how quiet I got in my soul.) You could move here for the sake of loving the city and the idea of being a writer and I would not argue you out of that choice. Time of your life, kid. But it's not necessary. The writing starts and ends with you, no matter where you are.

Sending you all love,

Jami

You are reading Craft Talk, the home of #1000wordsofsummer and also a weekly newsletter about writing from Jami Attenberg. I’m also on twitter and instagram. I try to answer comments as best I can, which are open to paid subscribers. You can subscribe here or give a gift subscription here. (If you are a teacher let me know, and I will give you a free subscription.) Fifty percent of the proceeds will go to various cultural, educational, and social justice organizations in New Orleans (and sometimes elsewhere). This week’s donation went to support Music and Cultural Coalition of New Orleans.