For all my pen-pushers out there: N+1 Magazine and Faber and Faber have recently teamed up to bring you a stellar new resource, particularly for those in early-career crisis mode: MFA vs. NYC. This essay collection spiritedly debates the merits of studying creative writing at a university-level versus essentially creating one’s own discipline (/opportunities), here in the city. The book, edited by award-winning author Chad Harbach, offers sage advice to any and all artists considering higher-higher education, and makes some especially savvy points about the sacrifices one must make in order to pursue an art-y career in a spot like New York. The wide gamut of contributing writers includes Emily Gould, George Saunders and the late David Foster Wallace.
The book’s debate has got this writer/blogger lady thinking, as the should-I-stay-in-the-city-to-make-my-art-debate seems more topical than ever. Arguments for and against New York as a creative breeding ground seem to be bouncing around the blogosphere these days, mixed in with that usual slew of rhetoric re: all-those-Millenials-are-lazy/poor/listless/dreamy. In her novel, Just Kids, Patti Smith suggested that all aspiring artists in NYC make for higher ground. “[New York] has closed itself off to the young and struggling,” she wrote. Joan Didion made a similar caution in her elegant 1967 essay, “Goodbye To All That,” writing that New York “is a city for the very rich and the very poor…New York is also, at least for those of us who came from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.”
And only last year, a compendium of lady writers penned pieces for an anthology called Goodbye To All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. There are consistent reminders everywhere you look of the financial and emotional hardships one assumes, in order to pursue this dream that’s already been laid out or abandoned by so many greats. Did anyone else read writer Meghan Daum’s hefty indictment of the city, My Misspent Youth?
So as a writer – or really, as a young person at all – I’ve been attempting to re-articulate my own line of defense. Why have I chosen to study in the school of life (as opposed to at an actual school), at least for the immediate time being? Why do I stay in New York? It’s…difficult to explain. People are flourishing in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Austin, and they’re paying a lot less to exist in those places. What’s so great about New York, particularly as a hub for creative activity? What’s so compelling, on a day-to-day level, about this G-D miserable city?
I keep thinking of single days that I’m convinced couldn’t have happened in any other place. I’m probably wrong, but it’s a delicious, magic lie: for in what other universe could you follow three strangers from Joe Strummer street to a bar with no awning, and dance until the sun comes up? In what other universe is there a set of abandoned train tracks made into a park? Where else can you see famous people mixed in with street traffic? Just on television, right? (Or, L.A…) There’s also so much history here, and it’s not merely in museums, it’s on the street. Or maybe I’ve just read too many books telling me that’s so.
I picked this city because I fell in love with the mirage of it, and I stay because I remain in love. My sort of love is hard-headed and nostalgic, which seems aggressively impractical compared to long-term concepts like fiscal solvency. But I remain dreamy and defiant and inspired, I remain unflappable. It’s inspiring to be in a place where – as a friend put it, “everyone has potential.” We can all kind of feel we’re in the weeds together, and let this self-imposed struggle – however dubious it might be in the long run – affect our process and our product. Or at least make for juicy, youthful anecdotes in our autobiographies. In MFA vs. NYC, the point is made that artists attending higher-ed programs risk learning to make art that is somewhat codified and distant, as opposed to immediate and fresh. It seems impossible that boring art could thrive in a city as rich and ridiculous as this one. Everything is immediate and fresh, here.
And because I’m young and a little feather-brained, I care more for symbols. I like bodegas and subways that stay open all night, and bridges and pizza and beaches, I like neon and street-side prophets and brouhaha, I like that if I wanted to, I could go to the Dorothy Parker lounge and get a cocktail in the middle of a Wednesday. I like walking around in a place where I can tell myself: you’re working, actually. This is you collecting things. Laid out, it doesn’t seem even slightly reasonable. But then, neither does love, right?
Hmm. So where are you, readers? Would you rather leave Metropolis and practice your art/life in a safer, pleasanter place? Are you in love with your place? And if you make art, if you have a city like this one, why is it YOU stay?
Image courtesy of affenlight.tumblr.com.