Writers to New York: I Wish I Knew How to Quit You
If Sari Botton’s first anthology was all about why writers leave New York, her second one dwells on the artists who stay.
In E.B. White’s essay Here is New York, he said that there were three kinds of New Yorkers, the last being the dreamers, who were responsible for what he called the ‘third city’: “It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements.” Almost a hundred years later, White’s third city, or his idea of it, still endures— attracting dreamers both ambitious and creative.
Writer and former New Yorker Sari Botton loosely addressed White’s idea of the third city and its artsy dreamers in her anthology Goodbye to All That. 28 stories, by 28 women, discussed the ideals that “third city” dwellers place on the New York, the series of the highs and lows, and the realizations that inevitably follow. They discussed what it means to be a writer—a volatile profession to begin with, especially in a city that can be either inspiring or depressing—and how this made one eventully leave.
Botton’s second and latest anthology, Never Can Say Goodbye, revisits the relationship between the writer and the Big Apple. It’s one that has become a big topic of debate on whether writers can survive and live in NYC. But Botton is not interested in broaching the subject of “how to make it work,” as an artist in an expensive town. She’s more interested in the romance that Joan Didion got at in her 1967 essay Goodbye to All That: “New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.” Didion left when she was 29, but later returned in the late 1980s with her husband, Gregory Dunne, and still keeps an apartment in the city.
Botton’s second book is also a defense of her first one, which misled critics and readers to assume that her book was airing the frustrations of writers who had been driven out by exorbitant rents and a dwindling publishing industry. In her introduction, Botton lays out her defense and reason behind the second collection: “I’d like to begin by making one thing indisputably clear: I love New York City. I wanted to get that out of the way because there’s been a bit of confusion about my stance on the city.”
She notes Patti Smith’s advice: find a new city—Detroit, maybe. She cites singer, David Byrne’ Op-ed piece in The Guardian, in which he threatended to leave New York if it became an enclave for the rich only.
But these essays are about the reasons for staying. Whether it’s Susan Orlean, immersing herself in the world of Papaya Dog on the Upper East Side (and later embarrassing herself), or Jenna Wortham’s observation that everyone has a different expiration date when it comes to living in NYC (her mother did not last a whole day), or Alexander Chee leaving and returning a total of three times, it seems clear that Didion was right—New York really is no mere city.
Never Can Say Goodbye also addresses what happens when the romantic notion dissipates. Does one leave or stay? In this anthology, most of the conttributing authors decided to stay—in part because they relinquished the romantic notion and began living in real New York. For this reason, Botton’s second anthology is more honest and less nostalgic in its tone, which makes it all the more appealing. Each essay varies in its accounts of “New York moments,” but manages to show how everyone has their own idea and own love of New York—especially writers—and how those ideas come to shape and to dictate their experiences, for better or for worse.
In Alexander Chee’s essay, New York Three Times, he discusses his third time in New York, viewing the East River from Brooklyn, and listening to his friend confess that New York was no longer magical for her. He pauses, and thinks to himself that he does not share the same feeling, even though New York is no longer the New York he visited on the weekends when he was an undergraduate student at Wesleyan, where he strolled through the East Village, intoxicated by its gritty charm; or the New York of his early twenties, with the new thrill of being a writer. He likes his current version, and he stays.
In Adam Sternberg’s essay, Me Love Brooklyn, he discusses the difference between the idea of New York and the “actual bricks-and-mortar” city. He writes, “Everyone who moves to New York from another place comes at least in part because they’re chasing after an idea of ‘New York.’ This New York is not a place you move to; you actually arrive with it in your mind.” Sternberg’s essay dissects the difference between the idea of New York and actual city living, recounting his own experiences as a newcomer, riding the D train over the Manhattan bridge to work and wondering why his fellow passengers did not look as enthused as him. He quickly realizes that moving to New York is not romantic, but he settles down rather than leaves, lowering his expectations, and instead choosing to take “those rare and invaluable moments when the city does deign to show you a glimpse of its fabled magic…” and store them as a “ballast against despair.”
For Sternberg, living in New York is not possible if you are chasing after some idea of the city. In fact, it will make your experience worse. Every dreamer encounters reality, and New York reality is especiall harsh and merciless—making the dream quickly turn into a nightmare. But there’s a silver lining, and it involves the freedom to choose to live in the city, forgo your high expectations, and savor the “magical moments as a bastion against despair”—and maybe get some writing done.