Why Writers Love New York City (and Then Leave It)

Sari Botton, Melissa Febos, Mira Ptacin, and Cheryl Strayed discuss what inspired their contributions to Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York.
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In the new anthology Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, contributors share the experience of moving to New York in pursuit of the writing life. In essay after essay, writers describe their experiences moving to New York from Long Island, New Jersey, California, and overseas. Anyone from anywhere can come to New York City in pursuit of fame, riches, and romance, and as a result, Goodbye to All That captures New York’s uniquely nuanced, overlapping landscape of cultures and geographies that for millions feels at once deeply personal and communal.

But while something deeper also reveals itself in the pages, some thread of pure accident runs through the story of each writer’s dream of making it in the big city.

Goodbye to All That features several familiar names from the Manhattan and (mostly) Brooklyn literary community, including editor Sari Botton and several other 20- and 30-something women writers. Through a series of emails, I asked Sari and contributors Cheryl Strayed, Melissa Febos, and Mira Ptacin about the differences and similarities between their experiences in the city of so many of our dreams.


In Cheryl Strayed’s essay for this anthology, “Minnesota Nice,” she writes,

I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan. I went willing to live there forever, to become one of the women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats. I was ready for the city to sweep me into its arms, but instead it held me at a cool distance. And so I left New York the way one leaves a love affair too: because, much as I loved it, I wasn’t truly in love. I had no compelling reason to stay.

This is a phenomenon many of us seem to get swept up in: feeling that our relationship to the city is as alive and intimate as that of fiery, fateful lovers. What is it about New York that compels us to believe the city is a human entity unto itself: one capable of offering earth-shattering sex, endlessly stimulating conversation, and eventual transcendence, too?

Cheryl Strayed: New York City isn't just a city, it's an idea—a projection of our fantasies and desires, like Paris or California or that beautiful person across the room. Because so many have imbued New York City with such meaning, it's hard not to be a bit over the top in one's reaction to it. 

Sari Botton: You'll find earth-shattering sex, endlessly stimulating conversation, and transcendence in New York City, in great multitudes. The sheer number of people—many of whom are looking for the same things, who have similar stars in their eyes— allows for all kinds of possibility. It makes it very magnetic and alluring, like the most charismatic person you'll ever know.

Mira Ptacin: Define “earth-shattering sex.”

No, really, I came to New York City knowing nothing about it other than its reputation. It was about the fame. It was about that sentimental song wisdom. “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” To me, New York was like that popular captain of the football team from high school, while I was the weirdo in orchestra class with Kool-Aid dyed red hair and a skateboard. And, for some strange reason (ego, really), I was determined to convince the football captain to fall in love with me. So it was all about the challenge.

New York did have some to do with my career, too, but it had a lot more to do with my self-esteem. I wanted to see if I could win over this great city. The thing is, it’s been my experience that some years after graduating from high school and moving on, we nerds go on to make ourselves happy and that popular football jock has a drinking problem and is still attending high school parties.

Melissa Febos: New York is an iconic place, and one of the symptoms of iconography is that we graft our identities onto that image, borrow the certainty of its familiar dimensions, at least until we find our own. Also, the city is a kind of human entity, isn’t it? What part of it is not made up of or by humans?

I think it’s natural, even useful, to have an idolized place. The Elysian Fields, heaven, New York—romanticization helps us move through the pains of the place we are in.

We idolize and worship and romanticize the people we fall in love with, and when that fantasy cannot withstand the human reality of the beloved, we either stop loving them, or begin loving them in a more complete way.

Later in “Minnesota Nice,” Cheryl writes,

In the end, I had to realize it was never meant to be. It wasn’t New York. It was me.

I found this exact sentence—It was me—in other essays; it’s a sentiment that echoes throughout the whole collection. Is there a sense that leaving New York—because one’s constitution or circumstances can no longer withstand the city’s exigencies –constitutes a failure of character?

Botton: As Mira said, brings to mind "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere," that famous line from Kander & Ebb's theme song from New York, New York. I think there's also a reverse corollary people subscribe to: "If I can't make it there, I won't make it anywhere," which means, I'm not so strong.

Strayed: I didn’t experience leaving New York City so much as a failure of character as an acknowledgment that in spite of its reputation, I didn't have to love this city. I didn't have to want to stay. For me it was part of growing up, of deciding to seek what I really wanted and who I really was rather than pursuing an idea of myself. I love New York City, but I don't want to live there. It was living there that taught me that.

Febos: I knew that leaving was very much like leaving a lover—a symptom not of failure, but of change. 

Ptacin: In some cases, I think it’s actually the opposite of failure. In my case everything vital and healthy about me began to fall apart in New York: my inner peace, my marriage, my health, my sensitivities, my gentleness … my personality, really. But I kept insisting that I wouldn’t leave until I had made it. The thing is, once I made it to one rung on the ladder of success, there was always another rung above to reach for. And another, and another.

As I wrote in my essay, “we go to New York City to make our careers but end up stepping over homeless people on our way to work.” I never wanted to become that person. To me, losing my sensitive nature would be a failure of character. So by finally saying “fuck it” and doing what was best for me as a human as opposed to me as a brand, I think I did the hard thing but the best thing by leaving. The right thing. I am proud of spray-bottling myself in the face.

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Presented by

Marie-Helene Westgate

Marie-Hélène Westgate is the interviews editor for Freerange Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in Psychology TodayThe Believer, and Tin House. She lives in Brooklyn. 

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