I am wondering what your advice would be to gratefully make the transition to the Big Apple, as an artist/creative. I am starting to feel cold feet because of how daunting the city can be from an outsider, but at the same time want to take in whatever life throws at me.
The city is daunting because life is daunting. If someone's not daunted by New York, then they're not daunted by life, which means they're probably not very reverent of life. They think they've figured it out. They live with certainty, not humility.
So, there’s some good news already: You’re a much more thinking, feeling, reverent human than someone who comes to New York with warm feet and an instant sense of belonging.
That person wouldn’t do very well as an artist, because to be ‘a creative,’ you have to—as Rilke advised—live the questions. As Picasso once sighed, “Computers are useless; they can only give you answers.” What do creative humans do? Explore uncertainty. You’re in a very good place—literally and figuratively—to do that!
You’re also joining a long legacy of people who moved to New York to be inspired artistically. Welcome to a historic community! You already have a good circle of supporters and peers here; most of them just happen to be dead. No matter! You’ll meet alive friends, I promise.
In the meantime, though, I have some bad news: Things are probably going to suck for a while.
Moving to a new city is hard. I moved to New York with a solid-ish career, a dream apartment, and a circle of friends, and it was STILL hard. I remember wondering if it would ever feel like home. I thought home was supposed to feel cozier. I thought home would feel much more like mine.
When I used to visit New York, it felt more like mine than when I moved here. I was suddenly sharing this city with millions of people, and millions more people who dreamt of living here. It was so much easier to love my former cities—Seattle, Chicago, Baltimore, DC—wonderful places that were sometimes overlooked in the shadow of the Dream City. It was easy to claim them as mine. I loved being their advocate. New York doesn’t need another advocate. I was the one who needed an advocate!
But New York took me by surprise. I thought he was a gruff businessman, but she was a soft grandmother. I had my guard up when I first got here, but as soon as I traded my armor for pajamas, she blanketed me. She told me stories, played around with me, comforted me at the end of a hard day. When I was available for softness, New York was gentle. When I told myself that the city was aggressive and didn’t care about me, I had a hard time.
Of course, there were many lonely nights—even with a built-in friend group. I missed friends I hadn’t yet made, longed for love I hadn’t yet fallen in. I felt uncool, I felt out-of-place, I felt annoyed when it rained again.
I frantically looked for solutions: If I just make more friends, if I just go to more parties, if I just find an apartment without mice, I’ll be all set. What I neglected to realize is that a relationship with a city is much like a relationship with a person: There are ups and downs; there are moments you get it right and moments when you ask for forgiveness. There are times you feel so deliriously in love and others when you wake up and wonder what you were thinking. There is no solution to New York.
Here is the guidance that has never failed me, and may I suggest: Work on deepening your life, not widening it.
People often ask me how to make friends in New York. I don’t know. All the friends I have made here have been such random encounters (as two wallflowers at a New Year’s Eve party, meeting a friend of a friend of a coworker’s friend) that I couldn’t begin to give a How To guide. Sure, you can join a book club, but will you meet kindred spirits there, who will consistently show up for you through the fog and the bright lights of life? I don’t know.
What I do know is that, in order to feel any sense of belonging somewhere, you have to deepen into it. Instead of constantly trying to widen your circle, deepen the circle you already have. If you have a best friend who lives across the country, maybe start sending voice notes or video messages so you can stay connected throughout the week, and you’re not scrambling to make a ton of friends in your borough. If you’ve found a bagel place you really love (I have many suggestions), try going there consistently so you’re a regular and you have strangers checking up on you (this will happen!).
Find your laundromat, your dry cleaner, your coffee shop, your bodega, the no-frills bar where you feel comfortable reading alone—and you’ll feel at home sooner than you think. Set out Halloween candy for your neighbors, give your barista a gift card around the holidays, ask the bartender how they’re doing, make yourself noticeable by being nice. This is generally a better use of your energy than going to a gallery opening in an attempt to collect lifelong pals a la every sitcom in the 90s.
It can be easy to think of New York as purely as life-expanding place: a place where your list of friends gets longer, your career grows taller, and your collection of experiences gets bigger, but I've appreciated the city so much more as a life-deepener. I've seriously worked on friendships here, grappled with major disappointments here, and I've explored the depth of my own shadows like never before. The more I let New York enrich my life rather than enlarge my life, the more it becomes mine.
I have a specific image in mind when you say you want to “take in whatever life throws” at you, and maybe you do too. But perhaps you can think of New York gently tossing you opportunities like never-ending ping pong balls, rather than expecting it to clobber you with one fabulously overwhelming opportunity or the party of a lifetime.
If life tosses you a nice coffee shop around the corner, go there. If life tosses you someone who’s having trouble getting their money in the subway card machine, help them out. If you’re the one who needs help, and the city tosses you a little grace, take it.
If you’re available for softness, New York will be soft. Not always, but a lot of the time. It’s something you have to be present for, though. You have to scoop up those ping-pong tosses. Not every single time, but a lot of the time. You have to be aware; you have to look around. New York will never reward someone whose eyes are to the ground or on their phone. No one likes to give gifts to an unappreciative recipient, and if you’re not grateful for the gifts around you, the city will stop giving them; she won’t bother.
I can guarantee there will be difficult moments. I hope you can have a sense of humor about them, knowing that everyone feels this way. I also guarantee there will be magical moments. If you're an artist/creative, you're uniquely suited to see and enjoy them, and maybe even help others see them through your work.
I'll leave you with one more thought: You can always leave. You're not a failure if New York isn't for you. I know a lot of wildly creative, fascinating, strange, appreciative people who just never clicked with the city, and they're now living some other creative dream near the ocean or in a slower-paced town. Who cares! The experience you'll have is one that ONLY you can have, and the only mistake you can make is trying to fit in to someone else's expectation or idea of what a New York Life looks like.
In the meantime, welcome to this enormous community of creative people who were drawn to the city for some reason or another, and I hope the city will work its magic in your work and in your soul.