I love getting lost in a crowd. I go to coffee shops and public markets to be around people—but not to talk to them. I wear earbuds constantly, even when I’m not listening to anything.
My extroverted friends don’t get this. They say things like, “I thought you hate being around people.” I don’t. I hate talking to people, especially small talk with strangers. Big difference.
We recently decided to take our teenagers to New York City over spring break as their cabin fever became almost intolerable. My wife and I had lived in the metro area for 7 years but left 18 years ago. I worked for a year in all five boroughs but had moved before the terrorist attacks on September 11th. Given that it was a day’s drive from Cleveland and that we knew how to get around the city, we struck off on our adventure in the car and planned to use public transit in Manhattan.
I would have rather not gone anywhere. My introvert nest is warm, comfortable, and where I do my best work, but I also recognized that heading to New York City was an opportunity to be forced out into the real world, which would be good for me.
Sitting in the Oculus World Trade Center Transportation Hub and revising a novel was beyond fun. Imagine sitting at a table in the middle of Grand Central Station during rush hour—yeah, kind of like that. Thousands of people passing by, hundreds of ethnicities, representing dozens of countries. There’s no place like New York.
Between edits, I watched, listened, and smiled—all with the protection of my permanently implanted earbuds. But that’s another aspect of New York that I love. New Yorkers don’t start up meaningless small talk with each other. They’ve got each other’s back. We saw how the city responded after 9/11. But they’re never going to ask you about the weather. Thank God.
I could have resisted. I could have joined the rest of my family on their excursion or I could have locked myself in the Airbnb and not risked any outside contact. That would have been easy and comfortable. But I’d be missing out on the rich diversity offered up by the most incredible city on the planet. Going out meant that I’d risk interaction and be stuck in the crowd—taking a taxi to the Christopher Street Station and riding the 1-2-3 train uptown.
It was worth squeezing through the doors and hanging on the bar in the subway car because I felt alive. The frenetic energy and pace of New York get in your blood. Some people hate it. Some love it. If you don’t fight the energy but instead wade into it, the current can take you to an interesting place.
The basic premise of Aikido, an ancient Japanese martial art, is to redirect energy instead of meeting it head-on, and that is exactly how I navigate Manhattan. I fold myself into the current and allow it to move me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.
The same thing happens when I get into a manuscript. I write from an outline, but each chapter is represented by two or three sentences. I laugh when writers who “discovery write,” say they could never plan a story. Out of 2,000 words that I’m going to write for a chapter, I jot down 50 ahead of time on my outline. That means I’m also discovery writing 99.975% of my chapter.
It’s the flow of the story that allows that to happen. By thinking about those 50 words before I start writing, I create the energy to manifest the other 1,950 that the muse will deliver. Without those 50 words, I have no idea if she’ll show up or not.
Just like walking into the Oculus and sitting at a table with a coffee, I have no idea what the experience will bring, but by setting my intention and submitting to the flow, I trust it’ll end up somewhere cool.
Even as a tourist, you become part of New York and New York becomes part of you. You’re immediately drawn into a common human experience. Yes, I’ve seen fistfights in subway cars and police chasing suspects down the sidewalk. But I’ve also seen a woman purchase a meal for a homeless man and a group of people rush to the aid of an elderly woman who had collapsed on the subway platform.
My anonymity always remains in check when I’m in New York City. I don’t have to fake cordiality the way they do in other parts of America, and yet I know that if I were in trouble, someone would come to my aid.
Someday, my wife and I will find ourselves living in Manhattan. I can feel the city’s heartbeat. And it’s strong.
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