Tuesday, July 5, 2011

country writer visits the city writer

This post by the Rejectionist (about feeling like the treed and mountained West Coast isn't "large enough" after living in New York City for several years) gave INTERN cause to ponder.

As one who bounces back and forth between living in Big Cities and treed and mountained rural places on a regular basis, INTERN often wonders which is a better or more productive setting for a writer. City or country? Urban garret or forest shack? Here are some observations from both sides of the fence:

In the city, you can choose from a plethora of readings and book launches and literary events any day of the week. Except most of the time, you're too tired and cranky from your three jobs to actually go to any.

In the country, you can occasionally hear a local poet read from his latest collection of lyric poetry, at the end of which you are so tired and cranky you would rather work three jobs than hear the word "gossamer" ever again.

In the city, you work three jobs just to afford the sweltering and boxlike former storage unit you share with six to ten roommates who also want to be writers. There is one desk which you all share. When it's not your day for the desk, you write in the cupboard under the sink, cuddled up to a Windex bottle.

In the country, you pay the rent on your palatial old farmhouse with the loose change you find between the sofa cushions. There are perhaps three jobs to go around in the whole county and they are all inexplicably held by a kind middle-aged woman named Cindy. You don't have a writing closet; you have an entire writing barn. Birds hoot in the rafters while you type.

In the city, you pride yourself on knowing where to buy the dankest [insert obscure serbo-afro-korean pastry here].

In the country, you pride yourself on knowing where to find the dankest polypore mushrooms.

In the city, you are surrounded by writers and artists and do-ers of all sorts. It's heady and inspiring and intimidating and it makes you feel so so so ambitious you get a buzz every time you sit down to write.

In the country, you only know of one other writer in the area (the aforementioned lyric poet). You glare at one another in the bulk section of the food co-op. When you visit your writer-friends in the city, you are so starved for literary conversation they think you have rabies and try to sedate you.

In the city, you're so busy you steal time to write in five minute bursts, on the subway, in line at the coffee shop, or on one of the lunch breaks at your many jobs.

In the country, you wake up with the sun and write until noon. You do this every day. For a week. After that, you realize the chicken coop needs swabbing and the beet patch needs weeding and there's a wasp nest in the solar shower. For a week, you steal writing time in five-minute bursts. Then it's back to sun-up until noon.

In the city, when your country friends come to visit, you try to impress them by taking them to get the dankest serbo-afro-korean pastry EVER. And they pretend to be into it so they don't hurt your feelings, but you suddenly realize you don't even LIKE pastries, that in fact this whole obscure-pastry obsession is just an attempt at differentiating yourself from the teeming masses of people around you, who are likewise trying to differentiate themselves from you with their own obscure-pastry obsessions...

In the country, when your city friends come to visit, you try to impress them by showing them all the obscure medicinal polypores you foraged from the woods, dried, and ground up in a bicycle-powered mill. And they pretend to be into it so they don't hurt your feelings, and you're like, "fine, go back to your tiny apartment and eat an obscure pastry!" and you sulk until it all starts to feel rather silly.

In the city, you can go to one of a hundred vast and well-stocked libraries and bookstores and find anything you want.

In the country, you can go to one of one (1) tiny libraries and check out a tea-and-cats mystery or you can go to one of one (1) used bookstores and buy an entire box of Harlequin romances for twenty-five cents.

In the city, you and your agent go out for espresso and designer cupcakes like, every Tuesday at ten AM.

In the country, your agent occasionally fears that you have been eaten by a bear, when in fact the power's been out for a week following a pesky snow-lightning-flood-storm, and there was never cell service to begin with.

In the city, you are always broke because it costs $50 a day just to breathe.

In the country, you are always broke because there is maybe $50 in the whole county which you and your neighbors are continuously bouncing back and forth between yourselves for various odd jobs.

In the city, you forge your dream critique group out of like-minded writers. You meet every Tuesday morning at eleven AM and engage in scintillating literary discussion.

In the country, you finally find out about a local writers' group after months of looking. The next meeting is in three weeks. You look forward to it with every fiber of your body. When the morning finally comes, you show up at Bud's Coffee Shack ten minutes early. Who is sitting at a smudgy plastic table but your archnemesis, the lyric poet! You turn on your heel and stalk out of there, crumpling your carefully-assembled pages in your fist.

In the city, you are constantly applying for writing fellowships in nice bucolic settings, where you fantasize that you will be so very productive and inspired by nature.

In the country, you are constantly applying for fully-funded MFA programs in cosmopolitan settings, where you fantasize that you will be so very productive and inspired by all the fast-paced urban grit.


So there you have it, writer-friends! The country or the city: both hold their challenges for the struggling writer, and their rewards.

INTERN wants to know: are you a city writer or a country writer? Or are you a suburban writer or a writer-on-the-moon? What is it like to be a writer where you live?


  1. Makes no difference to me, I never go out :)

  2. I'm currently living the in the suburbs (ugh!) but I go into the city to write. Even if I'm having writer's block, there always seems to be some interesting person walking by or some weird conversation to eavesdrop on. I LIKE having lots of stuff going on around me while I write.

  3. The city gave notebooks of material and friends from all cultures to share books and music and open the doors of perception (or maybe that was the drugs).

    But I much prefer the quiet of the country. And since the internet arrived, I no longer need to be sedated upon meeting another writer.

    In Rome you long for the country; in the country – oh inconstant! – you praise the distant city to the stars.
    - Horace

  4. i live in the suburbs and take the bus through the city to a nearby-ish college town. i do most of my writing at home and most of my revising on the bus.

    i lived in big cities for most of my early years and loved it. i'm not sure i have the energy for cities now, nor the interest in dealing with the noise, confusion, traffic and crowds of a big city. (in fact, i doubt i do)

    -- Tom

  5. I live in a city (which is a suburb of an even bigger city) but I am a country boy - and writer - at heart. I laughed at this post, though, because it is so very true.

  6. Loved this post~ funny and so very real as I have lived in both and still waffle back and forth over which is better and where to go next.

  7. College town, baby. Overeducated culture-obsessed micro-economies in the seas of rural poverty. Readings, concerts, arty movies, good food, fountains of books. Even the used books are a cut above: http://www.booksale.org/sale/specials.php

    It is still lonelier here. I miss the city things you describe, and I don't miss the other city things you describe. I was never a nightlife person so I don't miss that, which I absolutely would if I was one. I'd consider living in NYC if I could afford a house with a garden there, hahahahaha.

  8. Neither. I am that most scorned of all beings: the coffee shop writer. Shut up--I am *so* writing over here.

    Also, your mention of obscure pastries reminds me of when everybody in the writing universe was tweeting and blogging about macarons-no-not-macaroons-macarons. I never did find any place near me that sold 'em. Guess I'll settle for another slice of lemon iced poundcake with my next iced venti quad white mocha (nonfat stirred no whip).

  9. I live in the worst of both worlds. A city small enough to be essentially one big suburb of itself.

  10. I live in neither a city nor the middle of the country, so I sometimes experience both the city-writer and country-writer life simultaneously.

    However, I will be moving to NY in a few years, so I will prepare myself for some obscure pastry-loving.

  11. I'm wherever I can get paid kind of writer:)

  12. I'm in NYC and it's driving me a bit cuckoo lally. I don't go to readings because being around people fries me out. I don't have money to get out of town. BUT! I will hopefully be moving homeward (to Scotland) shortly. The capital is busy, but not so sweat-soaked and heart crushing as this place. Plus! Arthur's seat is a teensy bit of wilderness right in the heart of things.

  13. A post so true I must confess
    I've not tasted both as my office.
    Not quite city and barely country
    is where I've lived. But coffee bars
    offend my desire for the gossamer.

  14. I'm in the city whose name frequently appears as a synonym for the country in the New York Times and in posts by the Rejectionist. I live in a dank one-bedroom apartment with my desk-slash-breakfast-table in a corner of the living-room-slash-kitchen. My pea patch is flourishing, but it often cries out for attention during my (yeah, baby) eight a.m. to noon writing sessions.

    I dream about one day moving to a bigger apartment where I have an office with actual walls, perhaps in a closet, perhaps in a laundry room. A girl has to have dreams...

  15. I live in my parents garage, in a subdivision of Southeastern KY. I have found mushrooms called Hickory Fish before, friend polk sallat & ate berries that I've found.

    I pay no rent & have no life. I suppose I am a country writer.

  16. I grew up as a country writer, and the reason I started writing in the first place was because there wasn't much else to do in the country. You're totally right about having to work three jobs just to afford city life; that's exactly what I've been doing for years. The thing is, though, I work three jobs just so I can pay my bills; there's not much left for fun stuff like the literary/cultural events that the city has to offer. And because there is so much to do in Chicago, I always feel like I'm missing out on it when I have to work instead.

  17. I'm glad I have the best of both worlds by living in a small city. I can walk to plenty of cafes to write or meet my writing buddies (who both live within two miles of me). I'm in some excellent writing groups with fabulous writers. I can attend various readings or literary events. I live in a walkable neighborhood but also across the street from a huge park, so nature is still an option. Finally, I can actually afford everything without stressing out about it. Life is good.

    I've always pictured myself ending up in the country, and I seem to write best of all when I'm isolated in a cabin in the countryside somewhere -- but the truth is, I think I'd miss some of the perks of civilization.

  18. I think you've got it right, Laura M. Small cities is where it's at. But within an hour or so of a bigger city for when you need stuff even a small city can't provide. :)

  19. Your agent fears you've been eaten by a bear! lol!

    I don't think I could do a really big city. Too many distractions. And I'd be bored in hard-core country. Anywhere in between works. :)

  20. HAHAHA! This blog post is the funniest book I've read in the last 3 months.

    I'm a city girl who collapsed when I moved to the burbs. I felt like my soul had died. Then I got used to it and now I'm productive as all get-out. I have no idea what that means, and why the get-outs are so productive, but it sounds like something a country writer would say.