In 1997, after the Christmas holidays slowed and we dragged the brittle tree out of the house and down to the edge of the woods, my parents and I packed everything I owned into their mauve Ford Taurus station wagon, and drove north from Tennessee to New York City. We spent New Year’s Eve in a hotel room somewhere in between here and there. It was snowing, and we were tired, and we didn’t stay up to watch the ball drop on television in Times Square, which we had done for many years with our neighbors, the Craft family, playing Trivial Pursuit until midnight.
In the late morning of January first, we drove across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and along the BQE where it hangs underneath the Brooklyn Promenade, and found our way to Astoria, Queens, where my friends who I had come to live with came out of their (now our) apartment and placed two kittens in my arms. I was wearing a purple sweater and their claws picked threads out of the fabric.
The cats are almost thirteen years old now; they stayed with me as the roommates moved out, and on. I spent the same number of years in three different apartments on the same block—34th Street and 34th Avenue. But last June, I moved to Brooklyn.
My boyfriend and I reached the point where we needed to either move in together or break up. He wanted to make a house together; I wasn’t ready. He wanted a garden with a grill and plants in pots; I wanted my things to be my things and not to have them mixed with anyone else’s things. We fought about it, we talked about it, we didn’t talk about it, we cried over how it felt like our wants were keeping us apart, and finally, when I realized that I wanted him around more than I didn’t want him around, we started looking at apartments in Brooklyn that were both big enough for us, our cats (my two plus his one,) and all of our stuff.
What I found difficult to explain to him at the time was that my entire 20s were spent living in a neighborhood which, either by default or by careful consideration, made me the writer that I am today, and I was afraid that if I moved away from it, I wouldn’t be able to write as well, as much, or at all.
My first novel, Yield, was written in those three apartments, looking out the window and writing down—sometimes very literally—what I saw. I took from the Thomas M. Quinn & Sons Funeral Home across the street, whose neon sign cast blue light against the wall of my bedroom, all night long until it was replaced by the bright orange of morning. I took from the Greek nightclubs, which were loud, full of people who never seemed to work, who never seemed to have jobs, who smoked cigarettes and drank cocktails at 7:00am on a Tuesday. I took from the “Old Neighbors” Laundromat, where I sat for hours, watching the Russian lady snap the T-shirts inside out, like skinning a rabbit.
My identity in the months leading up to the move was engrained in the blocks between the apartment and the subway, between the Broadway post office and the Steinway Goodwill store, which is where I bought all my bookcases—quickly taking over the rooms. The Astoria Finast Window Corporation, whose owner (even now) broadcasts his political opinions by way of large, often autographed photos of Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush stuck in the windows—I walked past it every day, and, in the novel, I let my characters fantasize about blowing it up, a kind of radical leftist (if misguided) terrorism.
Was it me, the author, who wanted to blow up that store, or was it what the characters wanted? I began to wonder if my meter was off, if somewhere in the packing of boxes and the sorting of objects, I was becoming unglued. It became impossible to see whether the novel came from the neighborhood—if the characters emerged because of the neighborhood—or if all of it came from inside me. I had doubts. If my identity was a product of the neighborhood, and my novel was a product of my identity, was it wrong to presume that the novel—extrapolated to my ability to write anything at all, forever and ever again—was contingent upon my living at the corner of 34th Street and 34th Avenue?
This is really a question of whether or not you trust yourself. I am not sure if writers ever really do—that’s why we’re writers, eternally working with what we’re thinking about, writing and revising and restructuring and amending. Because getting it right means getting it down right. On the other hand, writing has too much to do with magic, too much of it is unconscious, too much of it is jolted out of our brains by unexpected inspirations, and we too easily stop trusting our good instincts.
Can I write in Brooklyn? Probably—everybody else does. (Uh…LOL?) The only way to know is to keep doing it. This is probably not a real crisis. This is probably the depressing slump that I slide into at the end of the fall, when the light leaves and the cold arrives. This is probably the grieving for “the old me,” the old novel, those characters who accompanied me to the grocery store, to the Laundromat, to the Thai restaurant, to the dry cleaners. Probably.
The new tenants in my old apartment moved in a few weeks after I moved out. One of them is a young screenwriter. “I told the new guy that a writer used to live here,”—this is my former downstairs neighbor talking to me not long ago—“so maybe there are some good vibes left in the room. Maybe there’s some kind of cool vortex in that apartment.” See, she said it herself.