How Do You Leave the Greatest City In the World?

In the new book "Goodbye to All That," 28 women writers describe loving, and eventually leaving, the city of their dreams: New York.

Oct 6, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

It's the city that never sleeps, and, after you've left, the city that haunts your dreams. New York feels, in many ways, like the center of the universe. At least that's what people who live there like to tell themselves (no shame; I did it, too).

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"Goodbye to All That," edited by Sari Botton

I always knew I'd eventually end up in NYC, and growing up, I nurtured a fun array of fantasies about the glamorous future life that awaited me there. When I moved to Brooklyn after college, I lived with friends, got a job in publishing, and jumped in to everything the city had to offer. I was drinking a lot and dating a lot and causing a lot of ridiculous scenes.

For a few years it went on like that -- equal parts glory and utter grossness. But slowly NYC began to wear me down. I loved the people who lived there, but there were TOO DAMN MANY of them. Everything -- and I mean everything -- felt stressful and difficult, from picking up groceries to lugging my laundry to the laundromat 2 blocks away. I felt constricted, like someone was constantly sitting on my chest.

Finally, after 5 years and a bad breakup, I quit my job and left the claustrophobic concrete bubble for good. I haven't moved back, though I've thought about it plenty.

The new anthology Goodbye to All That, edited by Sari Botton (who has written for xoJane), is all about NYC and the countless others like me -- people who used to love it, but had to leave it to save their sanity. It was inspired by Joan Didion's much-loved essay by the same name, and it features essays by 28 women for whom the magic of New York City faded, prompting them to finally flee.

Cheryl Strayed, Dani Shapiro, Emma Straub, and Ann Hood are among the seriously impressive range of contributors. I chatted with Botton via email about the book and what eventually led her to become an NYC expat herself. 

xoJane: How did the idea for Goodbye to All That first come to you? (I published my first anthology last year, and the idea came to me in the middle of the night! It was kind of magical. Just wondered how inspiration struck in this case.) Also, IT'S SUCH AN INSANELY GOOD IDEA, omfg.

Sari Botton: Goodbye to All That is an idea I’ve had for so long -– at least since shortly after I left the East Village for upstate New York eight years ago, and I kept meeting other NYC expat writers with similar stories. But I never thought I’d get to do it. Agents kept advising me against anthologies altogether. Finally, I just went about getting a deal on my own. I had all these great writers willing to contribute, and I figured it would be a big selling point. And here you have it. I almost can’t believe no one else pursued this idea before I did. Someone recently said to me, “How did this not exist already? It’s such a no-brainer.” And I said, “I have no idea how I got to this first.”

xoJane: How did the book end up including only women writers -- was that intentional?

SB: I actually originally intended for the book to include men. I had a handful of great male writers who were interested. But I was so inexperienced at pursuing a deal without an agent, and the publisher that wound up taking the book –- a great publishing house that I have been so happy and grateful to work with –- has as their slogan, “Books by women for women.” At one of our readings, at Greenlight Books on October 23rd, in addition to some of the contributors, Nick Flynn, Stephen Elliott, Edward Schwarzchild and even my husband, Brian Macaluso, will tell very brief New York stories.

xoJane: Why do you think so many women writers and artists still feel so drawn to NYC, even now (when it's changed so much and gotten so exclusive, expensive and unsustainable as a home-base except for the super-rich and privileged)?

SB: Well, I can’t speak for other women writers and artists, but I can say that for me, the place is still just always brimming with possibility, and serendipity, and access to so many first class real-deal experiences –- the best literary events, the best art, theater, everything, and so much of it to choose from. It might sound ridiculously cliché, but there is just so much to do and see, just walking through a neighborhood. The saddest thing for me is when I go to the city with no time to wander and see where I land, see what I see, get inspired. When I have only enough time to get to the thing I came in on the bus for, and then head right back home, I get really depressed. Then, New York is not New York. You could be anywhere, as far as I’m concerned.

xoJane: Why do you think the idea of leaving New York City is so FRAUGHT for so many of us, and why do you think some ex-New Yorkers still feel a weird sense of guilt and shame about leaving, even after years? Or maybe that's just me with the weird guilt and shame... 

SB: As exciting as living in New York can be, it can also be one of the hardest places to live. Most of the people I know have some degree of love-hate relationship with it. It can drain you energetically, emotionally and financially without necessarily giving you much back. In my experience, especially if you have limited funds, and are not at the top of your career, over time, there’s a diminishing of returns. But still, it’s hard to leave. It can be like not wanting to leave a slot machine that you’ve invested a lot of change in. And where else are you going to have your choice of ethnic foods and just about anything else you want at pretty much any given hour? Where else are you going to just walk around and look at buildings and feel like you’re in the opening of  “Manhattan,” with "Rhapsody in Blue" playing? Nowhere.

xoJane: What's your own personal loving-and-leaving-NYC story? Where do you live now and how does it compare to your former life?

SB: I probably never would have left NYC if my husband and I hadn’t gotten kicked out of our undermarket East Village loft. As hard as living there sometimes got, it was home in a way no other place had ever been. I felt the most me there –- the most comfortable being me there, which is to say, being kind of a loner weirdo. Recently I was [there] overnight for work things, and when my appointments were over, at about 8 pm, I went to Karaoke Sing Sing on Avenue A and belted out two songs, all by myself. It’s probably a good thing that place didn’t exist when I lived there, because you would have never gotten me out of there. I’d never have gotten any work done.

Now I live in a town called Rosendale, which is ten minutes north of New Paltz, and ten minutes south of Kingston. It’s also near Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Hudson… It’s a really cool area. There are lots of Brooklyn and downtown Manhattan expats who are artists or work in creative fields. It’s been called “Brooklyn North.” (Well, mostly by me…)

xoJane: If you could give one piece of advice to a young, excited lady writer just arriving to build her new life in NYC, what would you say?

SB: Hmmm. It’s so different now from when I lived there, first in the late '80s, then the early '90s through 2005. When I lived there, at least at the beginning, you could ostensibly afford to live alone, even if you were a struggling writer. You could have space and quietness to write. That said, I squandered a lot of the space and quietness that I had at my disposal. I guess I'd tell young women writers to not let themselves get distracted by the city, and make sure they make time and space to write a little each day or week. Enjoy the city, but don’t let it get in the way of your aspirations as a writer.

xoJane: Do you (or many of the writers in the book) feel any regret about leaving? Do you think you'll ever live there again?

SB: I miss the city a lot. For a while after I left, I didn’t miss it so much. But now, even though I love where I live, I’m kind of bereft. When I take the bus down, I often don’t want to come back. Some of the other writers in the book did come back after leaving – Ruth Curry, Emma Straub, Emily Gould, Marie Myung-Ok Lee Emily St. John Mandel. Not all of the essays are about leaving forever. I wanted to get a mix of perspectives. And as I say in the introduction to the book, if I win the lottery, the first thing I’m doing is buying an apartment in downtown Manhattan or Brooklyn.

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