Chapter 64: New York; My Muse
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
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I recently came across a diary I kept as a teen. On the last page, I had written down a list of goals for my life. Many were silly, teenage things, like find a real-life Edward Cullen and have nice designer clothes but one in particular I found both hilarious and endearing: “Be THE writer for New York, like how Joan Didion was synonymous with California.”
For a long time, I was one of those annoying native New Yorkers (and I probably still am) whose entire personality was based around being a native New Yorker. My parents are from Colombia, I am a first generation American, I am Latina, but growing up, what I identified most with was being a New Yorker.
My bookshelves were full of classic New York City books like “Eloise” and “Stuart Little” and “From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” and my personal favorite, “A Rat’s Tale.” As I got older and expressed interest in writing, books like “Writing New York: A Literary Anthology” and “Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakeable Love for New York” were added to my shelf. I read all the Goodbye to All That essays and all the ones opposed to it. I wanted to be just like everyone else who had come to New York and fallen in love but I wanted to do it better and thought I could because I was actually from here. I poured over every essay, every article, every book about New York and tried to figure out what the writers were doing and how I could do it better. How I could be the iconic one?
Looking back now, I don’t know if I would have wanted to be a writer had I not grown up in this city. There was so much to take in every day, so much worth writing down to remember. Everyone was from everywhere and we had somehow all ended up here to strive and live and dream. I thought it was beautiful and magical. My ideas at the time were so romantic, I must have thought the American dream was still alive, and that it was accessible to anyone.
In the books I read, the writers always seemed to have something they were known for. Garcia-Marquez was the magical realism guy, we used the term “Orwellian” to describe our dystopian realities. I just wanted to be the New York writer. Was that so much to ask for?
I suspect a reason why I clung so fiercely to my New Yorker identity was because I was ashamed of the other parts that made me me. I didn’t feel any special connection to America and I had no pride in being American. I didn't feel very Colombian either since I had not been raised in my parents’ country. I didn’t look like a lot of the kids at my school. But I knew that being a New Yorker was a good thing. I knew there was a reason why people from out of town thought visiting us was cool, why everyone wanted to move here after college. I loved that all the reputable newspapers and magazines were named after us – there was The New Yorker and New York magazine and The New York Times – and I dreamed of working at one of them one day.
But, as with most love stories, there’s the inevitable heartbreak. For a long time, when people would scoff at New York, would talk about how it just wasn’t the same anymore, I would always disagree. “You’re just seeing the bad,” I would say. But today, I worry that my beloved city really has gone past the point of no return. The average monthly rent for a one bedroom in my city is $3,368. Dollar slices are hard to come by. And as much as it pains me to admit it, I no longer feel safe all the time in my city.
I used to find comfort in reminding myself how this city, and probably every city ever, has always been witness to change after change after change. Immigrants arrive, they move away, new immigrants take over. But right now feels different. The cost of simply existing feels so punishing here.
Last year, a TikToker went viral for “living in the smallest apartment in New York.” His gleeful videos showing off his 95-square-foot East Village apartment complete with a shared bathroom down the hall generated a lot of conversation. New Yorkers are crazy! That is a literal shoebox, people commented. The whole thing upset me. This was someone who was paying $1,200 in rent for an East Village apartment by choice. But now he has over 4 million followers on TikTok, is represented by a talent manager and has a contract with a modeling agency. Meanwhile, people in this city are sharing bedrooms with strangers and working odd jobs and long hours trying to scrape together a couple hundred dollars for rent. Where are their stories? The people we choose to give attention to and the scenes we make a spectacle of are becoming more and more disappointing.
Maybe it was always like this. When I was young and in love with everything around me, it didn’t matter to me that the stories about New York and New Yorkers rarely seemed to be about people like me. I devoured shows like “Sex and the City” and “Gossip Girl,” shows that taught me to look at West Village brownstones and feel like owning one was somehow attainable. I grew up and became a little more in tune to the unfairness of my city and I learned to roll my eyes at the white liberal arts college students who moved to Brooklyn and gentrified its neighborhoods, pushing the locals out one by one. And now I am a liberal arts college grad who has moved to Brooklyn and is certainly not helping anyone by being there. It feels impossible to not have a cynical take.
And yet, it has always been New York that’s inspired me to write. In the third grade, I became obsessed with Emily Dickinson. I dreamed of being a poet and spent recesses in Central Park writing poetry about New York City trees and New York City skies. In creative writing classes I wrote short stories inspired by the people who worked at the McDonalds where I used to buy McFlurrys and McNuggets. My college admissions essay was about how in New York it was impossible to walk a block without hearing fewer than two languages being spoken.
I wrote about the immense greed and poverty, about the kids on the subway and their impressive gum chewing abilities, about my afternoons at the Barnes and Noble on 82nd and Broadway, about my love for Jackson Heights and the smell of Nuts for Nuts, which I wish someone would bottle and about Dr. Zizmor the seen-on-TV dermatologist, and Dan Smith, who promised to teach you guitar.
The older I get, the less I write about this city, the less I feel inspired in general. But I owe my writing life to New York. I wonder what stories and essays and profiles the New York anthologies of the future will hold. Whose stories will they tell and who will be writing them? And selfishly, I wonder, will mine ever make it in there?
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Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. Writerland, The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.