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Brief Ramble / The Unbearable Lightness of Keith Gessen

September 23rd, 2013 by Dustin Parmenter · 5 Comments · General

Main Street, Flushing, Queens

Main Street, Flushing, Queens

“How much money does a writer need? In New York, a young writer can get by on $25,000, give or take $5,000, depending on thriftiness. A slightly older younger writer—a 30-year-old—will need another $10,000 to keep up appearances. But that’s New York. There are parts of this country where a person can live on twelve or thirteen thousand a year – figures so small they can be written out. Of course it depends.” –Keith Gessen, “Money”, n+1 magazine, 2006. (

I was 15 when Keith Gessen, editor of n+1 magazine / defeated writer, wrote the rather tiresome article in which those words occur – an article about being a writer in ‘06. At the time, I was a sophomore at Detroit Catholic Central High School, and my biggest concern at the time was whether or not to quit the Track team.

Seven years later – “a figure so small it can be written out” – and I’m on the cusp of 23 years old (my birthday is Thursday, September 26th; so good of you to ask) and living in Brooklyn while trying to hack it here at Queens College’s MFA Fiction program, which regrettably offers no tuition rebates or stipends for its MFA students. So, after tuition, I have about $7,000 of income – all from loans – leaving about $1,600 in unfunded rent in my one-year lease. At this point in my calculations, I haven’t even eaten yet, nor have I left my house. So besides taking a full course load, I’m working at a metalworking shop in Gowanus for $10 / hour, and interning (unpaid, of course) at the Center for Fiction in Midtown.

But yet and still I’m not complaining, just laying out the facts – I’m just starting and I know I’ll get things sorted out eventually, one way or another – and trying to put myself in Gessen’s shoes of 2006 (undoubtedly leather, and without the visible besmirchment of any logo yet heard of then, in the year that I was 15), to really out-and-out attempt to empathize with the Harvard graduate who apparently failed to graduate from Syracuse’s MFA program – from which he received about $42,000 in stipends – for failing to submit an original work of fiction, which is sort of the whole point of going to an MFA program, no? It’s almost a full-time job not getting caught up with the “five or ten or fifteen others, also working on novels, who are just total fakers.” This is what I meant in my first post, when I said I’m finding myself in a city full of writers – though perhaps I should have said it’s a city full of people who call themselves writers.

“’Eventually you find someone to publish you. And you earn some money. You even find a wife. Things work out.’ It’s true. It’s mostly true. And when you think of the long-standing idea of art in opposition to the dominant culture, if only by keeping its autonomy from the pursuit of money—the only common value great writers from right to left have acknowledged—you begin to sense what we have lost.” -Keith Gessen (again), quoting and responding to Sergei Dovlatov, a Russian émigré writer who lived in Forest Hills upon arriving in the US

Will there ever be a day when writers and artists dispense with the childish pose of bohemian malaise? If there was ever a place where art and money went unabashedly hand in hand, it’s New York City. But I guess if I don’t make it as a writer, I can always start a magazine.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • egale

    Hi Dustin– Happy Birthday! You imply a gap between being a writer and calling yourself a writer; I wonder if you can expand on that. Is being published the only way to legitimately be a writer? Are certain publications legitimizing in ways that others, like magazines, are not?

  • Angela Polloni

    Happy Birthday Dustin!

  • Josh Mehigan

    Dustin: Glad to see you writing about this. Ha!—”autonomy from money.” Most writers I know who stay in NYC past 35 are wealthy (or would be elsewhere) or live in penury, which eventually *hurts* their writing and careers. But NYC is still the place to be for writers. How must this arrangement affect current literature?! Scary.

  • Dojo Deucy

    You could also embrace the oldest profession and start selling your body. This would likely give you some ideas on what to write.

  • That kid again

    My second atomic dump and your second article. Weird.

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