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Waving Goodbye to the “Goodbye to All That” Essay

Everyone I know has a fantasy escape plan. Portland, Oregon is the default, the place New Yorkers think will give them all the benefits of a progressive, culturally vibrant city, with the added advantages of friendliness and affordability. I tend to dream of returning to Baltimore, an even cheaper city with a more daring and distinctive arts scene, where I went to college and which I have missed ever since. My best friend from high school tells me that she and her new husband won’t move out of the city for a few years, but they’re already looking at bucolic properties upstate. Another couple of close friends are keeping a temporary move to Austin at the back of their minds. This Friday night I’ll be at the going-away party for a talented young musician who’s moving to Nashville.

And those are the people – all in their late 20s or early 30s — who haven’t left yet. In the past five years, I’ve watched other friends move from New York to Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Detroit. Yes, a few have trickled in from other cities, too, but far more are leaving than arriving.

I’m told that it was not always this way. Apparently there was a time, not so long ago, when an acquaintance’s news that she was skipping town would have been met with the same level of incredulity as an announcement that she was planning to jump off the Empire State Building. In her famous 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That,” Joan Didion wrote that her friends thought of her move from New York to LA as a “curious aberration.” But these days, the New Yorkers I know are more likely to react with congratulations or even jealousy. Departures that might have felt to previous generations like selling out or admitting defeat have become more like graduations; the people who leave New York seem not to have struck out, but to have gained some great insight about life, work, and happiness that’s been denied to those of us who remain. We become like those eternal graduate students who never manage to earn their degrees, stuck in the place that was supposed to make us into fully realized adults and forgetting, little by little, what exactly we had envisioned for those grown-up people we now realize we might never become.

Quite a bit has changed, in other words, in the half-century since Didion and her husband packed their bags for the West Coast. And now that a critical mass of people are pursuing or considering the relocation plan it so eloquently outlines, “Goodbye to All That” is more popular than ever before. Quotes from it pop up frequently on the Tumblrs of writers who live or once lived in New York (even I am guilty of posting a few lines), and every week seems to bring a new personal essay about the same subject. Yesterday, no less iconic a New Yorker than David Byrne said “goodbye to all that” without actually committing to leaving the city.

The problem is that there’s no surprise or controversy left in the topic. It’s no longer shocking for a young literary type to want to leave a city where an entry-level media or book-publishing salary may not even cover a 7’ x 10’ room in a remote neighborhood, especially with the Internet around to keep friends, colleagues, and rivals connected across zip codes and even oceans. You don’t have to justify it anymore, because everybody gets it.

If every new essay on this theme flirts with redundancy, then an entire anthology of them – titled, yes, Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leave New York – risks burying the genre once and for all. Whether or not Sari Botton’s collection of 28 women writers’ riffs on Didion will actually accomplish that, it at least signals Peak “Goodbye to All That,” and is already attracting more than its share of social-media schadenfreude for that reason. The truth is that at least a third of the essays are good enough to be worth reading even if you’re exhausted by all these people bidding the city adieu – or even if you don’t care about New York at all, because their real topic is the distance between what we envision for ourselves and the lives we eventually figure out how to inhabit.

Most of my favorite essays in Goodbye to All That aren’t about moving out of the city, per se, and it’s to Botton’s credit that she made room for divergences from the theme. “I became a writer without all the glamorous or anti-glamorous trappings of New York life I thought I needed,” writes Roxane Gay, in a piece that challenges the myth so many of the other essays perpetuate, that the city is an essential stop on every young writer’s path. Emily Gould’s account of three months spent in Moscow, where she didn’t speak the language and blunt Russians failed to indulge her good-natured self-deprecation, is laugh-out-loud funny at times, and illustrates how loneliness feeds creative work. Valerie Eagle reveals on the first page of her story that she “had been sold for sex starting at age six so my mother could pay for her heroin addiction,” and goes on to track her life in New York as a model, single mother, and homeless crack addict who slept on rooftops after a harrowing incident of sexual abuse forced her to separate from her daughter. Placed at the dead center of the book, it has the – perhaps intentional – effect of highlighting the privileged sameness of the essays that surround it. Financial woes may be central to the typical “Goodbye to All That” narrative, but only those of a strictly bourgeois pedigree (see: Meghan Daum’s famously divisive 1999 confession “My Misspent Youth,” reprinted in this collection and still refreshing for its lack of sentimentality).

Goodbye to All That features a few notably irritating moments: Recounting her last night in town, in which she and her best friend “were both wearing Indian headdresses and drinking whiskey… on our way to a sexual adventure – we had agreed to go have a five-some with the guy I was seeing, his best friend, and his younger brother,” Chloe Caldwell doesn’t evoke staying too long at the Fair so much as unwittingly embody the reasons why so many other people have chosen to leave it. And the obnoxiousness isn’t limited to millennials; for proof, read Rebecca Wolff’s overwritten tongue-twister of an essay, in which she boasts about how “cool” New York was in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and amuses herself by developing endless variations on the word “chump” to describe just about everyone who lives there now.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that the pieces that piss me off aren’t the problem with either this book specifically or the “Goodbye to All That” phenomenon as a whole; at least they strike some kind of nerve. It’s all the nearly identical just-OK contributions that make this trend so exhausting – the many that frame living in New York as a love affair that inevitably ends (as Didion did), or hinge on one or several real-life romances (Melissa Febos’ elegant, well-paced essay, which belatedly reveals its true subject to be the end of a relationship, is a welcome exception), or heavy-handedly evoke 9/11, or make a big deal of lamenting that the city just isn’t what it used to be. Perhaps it is therapeutic to write about these things, but for the reader, they blur into endless lists of lovers, apartments, parties, and book deals that beg for the Internet’s most loathsome rejoinder: “Cool story, bro.” As it proliferates, this literary meme builds an increasingly strong case against its underlying contention: that life in or departure from New York is more inherently interesting than living in or moving away from anywhere else in the world.

This is not to say that the misadventures of highly educated, middle-class writers who find themselves leaving Manhattan or Brooklyn are automatically unfit fodder for personal essays. Even a clichéd narrative like this can be a conduit for stirring insights. It’s just that the odds are now stacked against any given example expressing anything we haven’t heard before. And if a piece of autobiographical writing that isn’t covering any new ground also fails to entertain, provoke thought, or even just dazzle the reader with the loveliness of its prose, then – like too many of the pieces that comprise this particular trend – it shouldn’t be an essay for public consumption; it should be an entry in a diary. That is, I hope, where most future variations on this theme will remain.