I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down: A Writer’s Guide to Urban Survival

Author: Caitlin Cowan

When people ask me what living in New York City was like, I always say the same thing, and it always baffles the asker: they were the best and worst years of my life. NYC was a jealous lover, haranguing me for staying out all night, then telling me what a brilliant and intelligent writer I was; stealing all my shit and selling it to a pawn shop in Bushwick before apologizing and holding my hand at a James Tate reading.

In short, it was a complete paradox, and the city’s effect on my writing was no less knotty. One day I felt as if I were at the pulsing heart of the writing world; the next day I felt like a fanny-pack-clad tourist peeping into the windows of someone else’s city. I attended readings, met famous writers, gave readings myself, co-hosted a reading series in Brooklyn, and stayed at Café Loup until 4 a.m. drinking Greyhounds and arguing about writing with my fellow MFAers at The New School. On the other hand, I was also robbed twice. I was fired from the worst job I’ve ever had. I was in a long-distance relationship. I failed to make more than a handful of these “connections” I had heard so much about. Most of all, I was struggling to write, let alone publish, in the face of poverty, loneliness, and self-doubt. And yet, I would never give those years back. In fact, if I could, I would move back tomorrow.

The reason why living in many major cities feels like shacking up with a jealous lover is that the costs and benefits of doing so swing wildly back and forth almost every single day. Though New York is the example of examples when it comes to urban environments for writers, I expect that much of my experience applies to other cities with less than eight million people spilling from the mouths of its subways. So how do you reap the benefits of living in the city without letting its tough center drag you down? How do you survive in the city as a writer? I’ve come up with a list of tips that should get you well on your way:

  1. Do everything. Don’t laugh—I mean do everything. In most major cities, if you’re bored, it’s your own fault. While you’re learning the terrain (or if you want to involve yourself more deeply in a city where you’re already established) latch onto a local alternative weekly magazine or paper, scour the internet for local nightlife and cultural websites or blogs, ask your friends, colleagues, and professors where they hang out, and use this information to find out where and when readings and other writing-focused events are happening. What reading series are ongoing? What small presses are present in your city? What universities, cultural centers, bookstores, and bars host writing events? You would do well to pack your calendar with more events than you could possibly attend—spend some time penciling in various happenings for each week or month. Then, if you don’t have time to attend one you’ve scheduled, it’s no big deal. But you’ll never miss out or find yourself plagued by ennui if you’ve got a store of choices at the ready. And getting involved in the literary life of your city is why you’re there in the first place.
  1. Make money, or learn how to be broke. The big secret is that being a broke writer isn’t as glamorous as we come of age believing it to be. If you work six days a week at two jobs, trust me, you won’t feel like writing on that seventh day. The daily grind of working and commuting can feel like a time suck as it is, but it beats the hell out of being too broke to have any fun. It will make you bitter and will prevent you from taking full advantage of your city, which will always be more expensive than its outlying areas. The alternative is to learn how to be broke—drink at happy hours, hit up readings and events with refreshments and snacks… in a nutshell, become a frugal genius and pour the rest of the energy into your writing. If you don’t make money or learn how to be broke, you’ll end up wasting the energy you should be spending on your work on your resentment. The perception that real writing comes out of hardship is bullshit—having your needs met will benefit your writing in more ways than one.
  1. Don’t become a stereotype, and don’t let your writing become stereotypical. Particularly if you’ve never lived in a big city, the urge to let its sparkling, noisy presence become the focus or even the backdrop of your writing is almost impossible to ignore. Every protagonist is suddenly you, on the voyage of your life in LA or Chicago; every poem becomes a silent nod to the scores of pauper poets who scraped by on the same streets you walk to work every day. This will all seem really compelling to you at the time. I urge you—keep it out of your work, or at least consider how much the city may be limiting your imagination. I wrote a poem titled “Poem Beginning with a Line by O’Hara” within weeks of arrival at my 12th floor apartment on the East River, where I would stare indolently out the window. That poem is now on my computer in a folder titled graveyard. Where else might your stories be set? What other things inspire your poems and essays besides the city and its denizens? Travel outside the city when you sit down at your desk to keep your work, and your perspective, fresh.
  1. Don’t forget about the rest of the world. This goes along with the previous point: living in a major city—especially New York City, the benchmark address that many writers dream of scrawling on their submission envelopes, whether they’ll admit it or not—has the effect of expunging the awareness of all other cities, states, and countries from your brain, particularly if you’re “making it” in your city. Maybe this is a neurosis particular to New Yorkers (and to NYC transplants even more voraciously) but this happens in all corners of the world. Look for opportunities to publish, read, and study writing outside of the city. You’ll find that your community in the city values different writers, journals, and aesthetics. These particularities may or may not line up with what you’ve picked up before you moved to the city or what you’ll find in the world once you move away (if you ever do). My friends and colleagues in New York worshipped at the altar of writers who don’t even register in other cities, which isn’t to say that the big names in one place are better than those in another, but it’s worth noting that the hip writers and journals in one place may change as or if you move around. Developing a diverse, multi-regional aesthetic and reading list will prevent you from drowning in the insularity of your city.
  1. Spend time searching for the perfect place to write. In a city with endless alternatives, it can be surprisingly difficult to find or settle on your “spot.” I remember spending many nights walking all over the Lower East Side looking for a place to grab a coffee and hook up my laptop, not because I couldn’t find one, but because I couldn’t decide where to go. It’s worth spending some serious time finding the perfect spot, because apartment living in an urban environment can make even the best of us claustrophobic—you’ll need that place to go out and get some words down. Plus, searching for the perfect spot and patronizing it faithfully is a great way to snag free refills and other perks by becoming a regular. My friends and I used to patronize one bar so often that the bartender would let us drink on credit when we came there late at night to talk poetry. And when the perks start adding up, you’ll feel (and write) better.
  1. Reach out. You would assume that you’d be swimming in resources if only you could get out of your small town. If only you could live closer to the city. If only you were in the city in that great loft, the opportunities to write, read, edit, and publish or meet people who do. This is a myth. Living within the city limits does not turn you or your writing into a magnet for attention, accolades, or exposure. It’s up to you to make phone calls, apply for jobs, send out your work, attend readings, and strike up conversations with writers that you meet. You should also reach out to those beyond the city limits, whether it be your friends, family, or former colleagues, in order to keep yourself sane. I’ve never been as lonely as I was when surrounded by hundreds of people on the city streets, but when I was grounded in a group of friends and was maintaining my connections outside the city, standing alone on a crowded subway car never felt more exhilarating. Feeling less lonely, or feeling alone in a good, independent way, frees up your mind to focus on your creative work.
  1. Start something. The ultimate way to stave off negativity, connect with your city, and give back what you’ve learned once you’re on your feet in a new place is to start something of your own. Whether it’s a small press, a blog, a reading series, a salon, an informal workshop, or something so new and necessary that it doesn’t even exist yet, putting your name on something will help your name accrue value. In big cities, the project of harnessing the number one commodity—attention—might seem impossible. But starting something of your own just might have the effect of making you too difficult to ignore. You never know who is reading, watching, and listening. Starting something of your own might even help you check off other items, such as staying connected and making money, off this list as well.
  1. Whether you’re up or down, go to your desk and write. This is the most valuable lesson of all: when you’re making it in the city—your phone is blowing up, your bank account is swelling, and your knowledge of the city’s ins and outs has reached its glorious apex—your writing can creep down your list of priorities. The same thing can happen if you’re struggling—missing your rent payments, searching for jobs, and feeling like the city is rejecting you like a bad organ (an epithet I wielded frequently while staring into my whiskey on more than one night). Harnessing your struggle into your work will make you feel better. Don’t dream of fleeing the city, just dream of making the city work for you by pushing yourself harder creatively. It’s a damn sight better than moping around and becoming a disaffected cliché. And if you’re doing well in the city, don’t let your writing practice get too far away from you, either. You’ll start feeling a lot worse pretty quickly if you wake up one morning to discover that you wrote your last piece six months ago because you were too busy being a super awesome urbanite.
  1. Love your city. To temper the above-mentioned advice about looking outside the city and making sure it doesn’t break you, I want to add that loving your city is really the key. Living in a big city is a blessing in many ways—wherever you are, you are surrounded by museums, galleries, concert halls, bars, universities, parks, and restaurants, bookstores, readings, journals, opportunities, and other writers of all stripes. Moving to the “big city” is a dream that goes unfulfilled for many writers, so my final piece of advice is to get in touch with your gratitude, and love your city. If you do, the hope is that maybe, one day, the city will uncross its arms and love you back. And when that happens, the feeling is incredible, so incredible that you might even indulge yourself and write an ode or story about it. Maybe just one.