How easy it is to get side-tracked in this city. A year ago, I visited New York with my cousin from Taiwan. We stayed at the upper west side apartment of her friend (and now my friend too), a Columbia architecture student named Albert who was, like my cousin, is also from Taiwan. One evening after dinner, we were walking back to Albert’s place and someone – it may have been Albert, it may have been my cousin – suggested something obvious which had already, from the moment my plane touched down onto the tarmac, been taking shadowy shape in my subconscious:
“Why don’t you apply to Columbia’s writing program?”
At that point, I had applied to zero programs, but was shuffling six or so schools in the back of my mind, mostly because those six schools were the only ones I knew who offered non-fiction programs. They were also in unfamiliar states with more farm and/or wild animals than people. I had never considered Columbia. NYU, yes, because of my “familiarity” with it, but not Columbia. It didn’t seem out of reach as just hugely expensive and ivy-league and serious. I didn’t exactly associate it with the arts so much as business, law and medicine. But then I considered Albert, who was studying architecture, considered the fabulous if not liver-ruining time he was having in the city, and our trip thus far, which was filled with shopping, good food, and leisurely strolls through pretty parks and neighborhoods. It was, aside from the money spent doing the aforementioned things, a great city for a writer. The city teemed with “subjects” because it teemed with life. Though it seemed entirely possible that not a thing would be written. I nodded thoughtfully and said to both of them, “Yes, I should consider it.”
I didn’t actually look into Columbia until I went home to California, though New York was certainly still fresh on my mind. I was uneasy, however. In the city, we spent days strolling through the High Line, Central Park, and the West Village. Everywhere I looked, I saw young people like myself (though dressed in way more plaid and corduroy) sitting, writing and thinking. And writing. In Moleskins. It was apparent New York was already filled with writers and/or writing students (some people make the distinction. I am undecided). I remembered a conversation with a friend about his burgeoning family Christmas parties and how inevitably, in the near future because cousins were having kids left and right and the walls of his parent’s house remained inflexible, they would have to disassemble and branch off into smaller families parties.
“We’re reaching critical mass,” he had said drily, and I nodded to myself now thinking about the writer situation in New York. That was exactly it, minus the critical. Just writers en masse.
As was precisely my feeling, when I was walking through these famed New York areas, where tourists and unemployed artists/writers/creative thinkers like to congregate. The former to take photos every few feet and the latter to sit and write a line or two, every few feet.
I remember stopping on the High Line to buy a sour cup of coffee (Blue Bottle, if you’re wondering), and feeling slightly chilled by the brisk fall breeze. The feeling and the smell were familiar to me from my first fall in New York, back in 2004, but this time I felt far from alone. I looked around me on either side of the coffee bar and saw two bearded young men sitting opposite each other on two small tables, both with notebooks open before them, both touching their beards in thoughtful ways and staring out across the High Line. Their journals, diaries, whatever name they gave to their paper darlings, looked loved. The lines were filled with small, scratchy words in inky black pen: genius works in progress.
Were they writing about their respective lovers? Men or women? I couldn’t quite tell, so wonky is my gaydar – but from the way their legs were crossed and their brows furrowed, I discerned that they were very serious about their “craft.” And really it wasn’t just those two men, but also all the writers they knew and the writers those writers knew and all the writers thinking about moving to the city and all the writing students thinking about applying and all the writers already living and writing and kind of working but not really and the writers already filling up the classrooms at Columbia, NYU, the New School, and really, the list goes on.
I rolled my eyes, paid for the coffee, and wondered if I wanted to add myself to such a saturated pool.
I returned home some days later and turned the computer on. Into the box, I typed, “Columbia MFA Creative Non-fiction.” My search was fruitful – so Columbia did have a creative nonfiction writing program. It was simple then – I would apply, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. They don’t give very much aid, if any at all, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go back there anyway. As most people applying to MFA programs are wont to do, I had my sights set on Iowa – not the Writer’s Workshop, but the Nonfiction Writer’s Program, which I told myself was no less distinctive. I imagined wearing chunky sweaters and thick brown boots, woolen socks, and eating lots of…gruel. I imagined looking out the window and seeing nothing but rows and rows of tree trunks (I have no idea still, what Iowa’s topography looks like) and brilliant pink and yellows of a sky at dusk, because that’s normally when I look out the window. I imagined small classrooms with other serious writers like myself, talking and laughing and constructively criticizing each other’s latest pieces.
“You could use more dialogue here,” I would say, and they’d nod thoughtfully and appreciatively, and everyone would emerge a better, more well-rounded writer.
On the weekends, I would sit at one of two cafes on the main boulevard and maybe attend a reading given by one of my classmates. Maybe I would go hiking. Learn to hunt. Start making my own fur-lined caps with knitted chin straps.
I did not imagine crowding the subways with bums and businessmen, or being haunted by unaffordable goods in the city’s million windows, or being pulled, socially, left, right, up, down because there is just too much goddamn stuff to do in this city. I had imagined a quieter life, at a quieter school in a quieter city where no one would ever want to come and visit and I had imagined to be writing a lot more, because what else is there to do in a town where everything shuts down at 5PM?
Instead Iowa turned their noses down and Columbia and by extension, New York, welcomed me with open arms. (So did North Carolina and West Virginia, but common writerly sense told me better to grind it out in a thriving city to whom sleep is a stranger with tens of millions of other writers who want the same thing than in the woods with a mere handful of writers and grizzly bears). Which is how I ended up in a, if not the city that never sleeps, or more specifically, a city whose denizens prefer to start putting on their makeup at midnight for what is actually a very early morning on the town. Physically, I am not cut out for this city. I think few writers are. I’m not sure how my classmates get anything done. Between the school-sponsored social events and the hundreds of literary events happening elsewhere in the city (I have never seen SUCH a packed Barnes and Noble when Junot Diaz showed up… I ended up not being able to even see him because there was no room! Writers are true celebrities here, at least in certain bookstores) and the people who are open and kind and inclusive of me in their established New York lives and my own guests who have been coming non-stop (keep coming! This is not a un-invitation. The best cities are meant to be shared!) and the general housekeeping that comes with living on my own and moving into a place that had nothing and the time it takes to do simple things like buy yogurt at a three-story Trader Joe’s (you have not seen a line until you go to Trader Joe’s in Manhattan) and get places (I will, some day, figure out the subway system. Simple as it is), I’m finding it a bit hard to find time to read and most disconcertingly, to write.
But I manage. I try to read during those myriad pockets of time, mostly waiting for the subway, but of course it’s much more fascinating (and productive, I feel) to people watch. So naturally I don’t get much reading done on the subway, though I’ve intently watched other people read books whose subjects range from scientology to brain-imaging to my favorite novels, which always makes me wonder if the reader and I will get along. And I try to write on quiet afternoons like this, before the start of the weekend, which for me, begins on Thursday and ends Sunday morning when it dawns on me that I have two novels to finish before Tuesday.
Of my classmates, there are a few who’ve admitted to being slow readers and even slower writers and I sort of just want to pat them on the back in an sympathetic way and say, “Good luck with that.” But then I think better of it, look at my own schedule and the dark circles under my eyes and the hair that’s been falling out all over my apartment, and I decide to pat my own back and say, “Keep it together, Betty. Remember what Dad said: don’t forget your goddamn degree.”