A recent article in one of The Economist’s blogs, Prospero, concerning the “literary Renaissance” in Brooklyn (something that has actually been going on for nearly two decades now) got me thinking about the idea of location and creativity. Does it really matter? Can a person only create anything if they’re surrounded by other artists, living in some sort of “artist’s community”? I explored this idea in my first novel “November Rust”, where the plot line involves a would-be writer, finding his home environment in New York increasingly stifling, running off to Paris in order to be able to follow in the footsteps of his literary heroes. It worked for them, right? So it should work for him. It’s a cliché I wanted to riff about (as well as a plot line that had been done to death) but in the story, I wanted to illustrate that no matter where one goes, they bring all their baggage along with them. In other words, one can just as easily create where they happen to be. There’s no real need to go dashing off to some exotic location in order to produce anything. Sure, it could help inspire, could rev up the creative juices somewhat (just as a trip to Paris enabled me to write this particular story), but ultimately, I did 99% of the writing at my desk, in my apartment in Queens, New York.
I’m not here to bash anyone or even offer up an “us vs them” kind of nonsense concerning this issue (we have too much of that already in the world) but I have to be honest and say that the whole idea of “location” being all important to the creative process bores me to tears. It’s another one of those myths conjured up by old fiction, Hollywood, or other sorted fantasies. If you are a creative individual, you should be able to do your thing no matter where you are. But this is how I think. Others obviously feel differently. That’s okay. I just don’t agree.
New York City has always been a magnet for creative souls around the world - but it’s not the only place. I happened to grow up here, in Flushing, in the borough of Queens, the most ethnically diverse borough of the five, a place where over 400 languages are spoken on a daily basis, a place where you can literally find a community of some sort from every corner of the planet. There has always been a lot of history here and a lot of people had chosen to make the borough its home (Louis Armstrong, for one, as well as a host of other Jazz greats, the Marx Brothers - or at least one of them; the artist Joseph Cornell, who’s home wasn’t far from where I grew up in Flushing; the list is numerous). While it may not be the most “exciting” place on earth it’s where I came from and like it or not, its streets and its people had their effect on me and it does work its way into my own work from time to time; and being that I’ve been a life long New Yorker, the city as a whole often does, although I no longer really choose to write about it. In my earlier years it did, when I was writing my poetry, but as the years went on and I was exposed to many other things, I felt the desire to reach out and write about those things as well. The world is a huge place, with a lot of interesting people, places, events, cultures - a literal goldmine for a writer and any artist in general. There is no rule stating that a writer from New York City must only concern himself with New York City things - unless that’s what he/she chooses to do. It’s all up to the individual and we each have our own “calling” so to speak.
Artists circles in New York are too numerous to count. There is no one enormous circle that one needs to be a part of. One doesn’t need to be part of any if he doesn’t want to. The artist “community” in New York City is as varied as its residents - and that’s what makes New York a very exciting place to be and to create. However, there are some who get this idea into their heads that their little sliver of the huge pie this fair city has to offer is the only one that matters - and most of these types are usually those born and raised somewhere else, having only come to New York in recent years - a very different New York from the one I was born and raised in, I may add. Concerning the Economist article, I can remember a time when Park Slope was not the “literary Mecca” it has become, and the army of baby strollers didn’t exist. I can remember a time when the Lower East Side wasn’t the high-end playground it’s become in recent years, where you literally took your life into your hands when going down there. The so-called “grit” and “grime” a lot of young artists gravitate towards today in these areas is a joke when compared to the way it used to be. But that’s okay too. Today’s young artists have a right to the city as much as any of us. Whatever it is that fuels your creative juices, I’m all for it. However, it is not the only place on earth and it sure as hell isn’t the only place where one can create a work of art. To think so is not just being realistic. Regarding my own work, I found myself able to write in places such as St. Lucia, Paris, Baltimore, Toronto, El Paso, or wherever else I happen to be. Wherever I go, I always bring along the laptop to keep working on whatever project it is I’m working on. For fiction writers, most of the “world” that they create is in their heads and the outside surroundings shouldn’t make a difference.
Over the decades, a huge fantasy had been created, the idea of living “the artist’s life” or “the Bohemian life” as it’s alternatively known. We’ve all read the accounts of some of our greatest artists living in New York City, getting by on what little they had, living in their low-rent cold water flats, actually being able to scrape by with their art. Those days are long gone and so is that portrait of New York City. The former “artist enclaves” are now million dollar properties and whatever “Boho” community that does exist often comes with a very high price tag. So unless you have parents paying your rent, or you have some kind of trust fund, you can bet your bottom dollar that many an artist has to contend with a job of some kind. The old idea of living the “artist’s life” is dead and gone and any artist that desires to live in one of these communities better have a very well paying job or else contend with a horde of roommates in order just to make the rent. The idea of living somewhere else, outside that community, seems to be a nonstarter for a lot of people - as if they can’t create their work anywhere else but there, a notion that seems ridiculous to me. I think a lot of the cache behind living in the “artist community” is often drummed up by real estate agents and agencies in order to capitalize on the “value” of these enclaves. It’s big business for them to somehow make one feel that one’s zip code is equivalent to their worth as an artist or as a human being, which I find really sad, to be honest. But to each his/her own. One must do what they feel they must do.
At nearly 46 years old, the whole notion of living a “bohemian life” means absolutely nothing to me anymore, not that I ever really lived that kind of life to begin with. It would be nice to kick around and do nothing but create all day but reality is what it is and unless one is extremely fortunate to be able to make a living off their art, the necessary evil of holding down a job is one reality a lot of artists have to face - or else live in a cardboard box on the street. The notion of living that kind of life in this city - and especially in its artist’s communities - is nothing more than a fantasy unless you have some sort of independent means of survival. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that no matter where you are - even if you live out in the most remote parts of our country - you should be able to create your art. It isn’t about “Location Location Location.” It’s about what you have within you to bring that work to life.