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.

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.

I noticed certain details starting to repeat throughout the essays, like a kind of collective nostalgia: Interesting jackets (and I know from reading Megan Daum’s essay not to call these jackets chic), whiskey, and literary readings, as well as places like Citarella or Washington Square Park, and neighborhoods like the West Village, and Park Slope in the 1990s and early 2000s, came up over and over again. And of course brownstones were the most common motif.

When you’re away from New York, what are the details—whether they’re a place, a smell, a season, a particular kind of night sky—that transport you to a place of nostalgia?

Strayed: I love the feel on the streets, of so many people walking and talking and conducting their lives in a shared space of the sidewalk. Of course it can be the thing that annoys me about the city too, but mostly I love it. I'm always entertained by how aggressive the pedestrians are, how they step right out into the street regardless of what the traffic lights instruct them to do.

Botton: Lousy karaoke makes me long desperately for places like Baby Grand. The smell of pizza takes me right back.

Febos: Autumn. And Christmas. Though, that season and that time of year make me nostalgic for most things. I live in New York again right now, so it’s hard to get in touch with missing it. Right now, New York is my ball and chain.

Ptacin: I miss the way the city feels after a big snowstorm. Everything. Just. Stops.

I miss the food—all food, any time. I live on a small island in Maine now, and if you don’t make it to the grocery store before it closes at 8 p.m., you’re screwed.

I miss getting nervous before going out on the town. I miss going to Prospect Park very, very early in the morning and letting my dogs run off-leash before the rest of the city wakes up. I miss celebrity sightings, and I miss getting annoyed at tourists for walking too slowly. I miss the ambitious humans, and the jazz musicians.

I miss being drunk in a cab and watching the flickering skyline zip past my window while I realize, I’m in fucking New York City.

What is it about New York that compels millions of people to risk everything in order to try and make it in the city? 

Botton: It's the greatest city in the world, with the greatest assortment of cultures and culture, and a great variety of experiences that allows each person to have a different set of memories and sentiments. New York offers great opportunities at a great cost. You have to sacrifice a lot to make it there, and the pieces of the pie keep getting smaller as more people throng to it.

Ptacin: New Yorkers are willing to sacrifice and they just accept the hardships of being there by purely just being there because there is just this expectation that it will pay back. And that the harder it is, the bigger the payback will be. It’s kind of like the same sentiment behind some religions: The worse you have it, the bigger the reward will be.

How is it that—despite the projected hopes and adolescent ideals of millions of intelligent human beings—this city still manages, both in love and in tragedy, to exceed our wildest dreams? I guess what I want to know is, do you think New York is an eternal, unattainable romantic, or a deceitful, highly intelligent sociopath?

Botton: Ha! I think that when it's not working for you, you see it as the intelligent sociopath, and when there still seem to be great possibilities, it is that elusive, perfect romantic ideal that you keep striving for.

Ptacin: It’s both! For many people it is livable and it does pay back and make people happy, and for some you just can’t get it to be empathetic or sympathetic. It can flip from romantic to sociopath at the drop of a hat.

In her essay “My City,” Dani Shapiro writes about returning to the city for a visit, years after leaving for Los Angeles. Upon returning, Shapiro takes a taxi with her husband, to the hotel where they’re staying. She communicates a fear of finding herself in New York City not as a New Yorker, but as a tourist. Do any of you share this fear? Have you ever returned and felt like you were a tourist in New York City?

Botton: This is a great source of anxiety for me. It’s why I carry a Metrocard, and refuse to trade in my 646 cell phone area code for an 845. Moving out of New York City incited sort of an identity crisis in me. Intellectually, I believe that you can never return to being a tourist, or "bridge and tunnel," as I once was, growing up on Long Island. I believe that once you’re a New Yorker you're always a New Yorker. But try telling me that when I try to make plans to meet someone at a favorite old haunt, and the person I'm making plans with, who still lives there, says, "Um... that went out of business five years ago, and has been replaced by a Duane Reade."

Strayed: I return to the city often, and I do feel like a tourist. I don't think I ever got over that feeling when I was living there, actually. I lived there for less than a year and the place felt so different from any other place I'd ever lived that I never truly felt like a New Yorker. I don't mind being a tourist.

Melissa, it may be impossible to predict, but do you think you’ll move away from New York again?

Febos: I do. I’ll admit, this answer is colored by the fact that I am in love with someone who lives 2,500 miles away from New York, but independent of that, my commitment to New York is not what it used to be. The list of reasons to leave New York grows slowly but steadily as I age. That said, having lived here for nearly all of my adult life, it’s hard to imagine New York not being my home, at least in some part.

By the same token, do the rest of you ever imagine yourselves returning to the city?

Strayed: I don't. I live in Portland, Oregon. It's the best city in the world. Don't tell anyone.

Ptacin: HELL TO THE NO. Unless I become a bazillionaire.

Botton: I said this in the intro to the collection, I've said it in several interviews, and I hold it to be true: If I win the lottery, I am so there.