Letters From a Young Novelist #1: Leaving the City I Love
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
If you read this site regularly, you’ve surely read my work under a different name. The name change has nothing to do with me not wanting you to know who I am — my identity is easily found. The name change is merely because my professional life and personal/creative life have recently found themselves at odds with each other.
That’s hardly the point here. The point is this: I had to make a difficult decision. I chose to leave the city I love — the city that had become Home, the city that enabled me to spend the past three years in a delightful literary bubble, the city that introduced me to the brightest and most inspiring people I know — in favor of a city that induces mixed feelings, at best. I decided to leave Brooklyn for my hometown of San Diego. And, perhaps more importantly, I decided that, two months shy of my thirtieth birthday, I would move in with my mother.
A preamble: There are worse cities to call home. San Diego is beautiful. The air is fresh and clean, the weather is mild, it’s sunny most of the year. There’s Mexican food–the real shit, and you East Coasters have no idea what I’m talking about–and the music scene’s pretty decent. We have beautiful beaches; the mountains, desert, and Mexico are all less than an hour away. Plus my mother happens to live in one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the county–we are surrounded by nature reserves, yet the I-5 is only minutes away. So really, I have no room to complain.
Still, let me emphasize: This was not an easy choice. Living in New York was difficult, sure, but I felt at home there. For me, like most transplants, living in the city was something I chose because I liked it, because it suited me. San Diego is a place I would never choose. San Diego is a place I inherited, like a hand-me-down shirt.
Of course, there were outside factors involved. I graduated with an MFA in 2011; I spent last year adjuncting and trying to write. The university only gave me one class per semester, and that paycheck just covered rent, so I had to find an extra job to make ends meet. Those two jobs, in addition to my gig at Electric Literature, left me with very little time to write. I could come out with a new short every couple months, but that was all. On top of that, I was still broke.
Something had to change. The university wasn’t giving me a summer class, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of trying to waitress again. I considered attempting a career in publishing, despite the fact that I live in fear of routine and am incapable of waking up before 10am. But then a couple of things happened that would be fit for an entirely different sort of blog post — one about heartbreak, or maybe mental illness — and my living situation turned upside down. It felt like the whole world was lining up against me. I kept wondering how the hell I was going to write a novel while working 60 hours a week. Was I going to have to start shopping at Talbot’s? And, more importantly, was my novel just a pipe dream?
There was a voice, though, in the back of my head, whispering through all the chaos. It reminded me of three things: One, my parents told me I am always welcome at home. Two, New York isn’t exactly the city most conducive to writing a first novel. “It’s expensive, and there are so many distractions,” my MFA department head had told us. “Leave, write your book, and know that you can always come back.”
The voice was whispering the third thing most clearly of all: the most important singular element in my life, the thing I most wanted to accomplish, was writing this book. It wasn’t living in New York. It wasn’t my independence, my pride, or feeling like I lived in a city where I “fit in.” While I absolutely loved living in a place where I was surrounded by interesting, important people doing interesting, important things, living like that is not something I need to be happy. But it seems that writing a book is.
At the beginning of May, I called my parents. I asked them if they really meant what they said, about me coming back to live with them. I explained what I felt I needed to be doing. And they said yes.
Again, this was not an easy decision. I constantly remind myself: I am lucky to have parents who support my dreams; in a few more years, moving back in with my mom won’t be remotely socially acceptable; San Diego may be boring, but at least it is beautiful; and to make art that is capital-T-True, one must be willing to sacrifice.
By June I had gotten rid of most of my things. The stuff I kept–my clothes and books–I shipped off to California.
I didn’t eat or sleep much during my last week in the city. I was running on a sad blend of fear, high emotion, and adrenaline. I spent a lot of time sitting in my soon-to-be old apartment, alone, listening to records at top volume, smoking cigarettes and crying. I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye, yet that quiet voice in my head kept telling me that I needed to. Sometimes when something is said quietly, it’s that much easier to listen.