Escape From New York or: What I Learned When I Stopped Writing And Left America
by P. Casey Telesk
“Whether he’s in writing, TV, radio, teaching or lecturing, he sees very well, the way things are going, that the main thing is not problems of the heart, but to keep one’s nose clean. Not to trouble oneself about the uneasy hearts of men. But to pass, safe and dry-shod, down the rushing stream of time.”
Nelson Algren, from Nonconformity: Writing on Writing
My cough is so bad I cannot sleep. My body is not yet accustomed to the germs here.
Kibele, my soon-to-be wife, sleeps soundly at my side. The cat lying belly up in the crook of her arm stretches her front legs out to me and sniffs the air. She will follow me upstairs and beg for food even though there is food already in her dish.
She’d been eating next to a dumpster when my fiancé found her.
“Where are you going?” Kibele asks sleepily, roused by my stirring, and I tell her I'm going upstairs to take medicine and sit so that my coughing won’t bother her. It’s been so long that I am embarrassed to tell her the truth that I’m going upstairs to write. I haven’t truly done so in seven months, save for a few Trump essays that no one wanted to publish.
I hear small paws hit the bedroom floor as I ascend the spiral staircase to our living room.
From my seat at the kitchen table I can see across the Bosphorus to the ever-burning lights of Istanbul, the place I now call home.
I left America on October 13, 2016, during the night, but seven months since I first stepped foot here feels like a lifetime ago. My life then is a ghost; the person I was is a ghost—a time faded by now, when I was either snorting or ingesting well over 100 mg of amphetamine a day, smoking so many packs of cigarettes that the tip of my right index finger had turned dark yellow; a time when I was otherwise miserable with who I was, where I found myself, and where I inevitably was headed.
The cat cries at my feet. The ezan blares from the mosques and alerts me to the sun that will soon rise.
I met Kibele a year prior in New York City where we both had been living. That was followed by a year of silence because I was terrified of how I felt about her. I didn’t say goodbye when she returned to Turkey, even though I knew there was the chance we’d never see each other again, nor did I answer the emails she sent to simply say hello, an act of absolute cowardice that I will forever regret.
I broke my coward’s silence after a year, when she’d returned to New York City where her work had been featured in a film festival.
“A year ago you looked bad,” she said, “but you look even worse now.”
Before leaving for Turkey I had a dream in which I stood before a mosque made entirely of ash, except I didn't know it was a mosque, and I rubbed the grey soot all over my body. I heard the ezan then, too, but was unaware of the sun about to rise.
“Sort out whatever it is here that’s doing this to you, and if that’s not possible, come to Istanbul,” she told me.
“I have a house, and you can have your own room. There’s a demand for English-speaking instructors. You could get a job at a private school, or at a university. Just do something to make yourself happy.”
That was September 18, 2016, and I boarded a plane bound for Istanbul less than a month later with dreams of writing about the American election as an expat, about the conflict in Syria, a mere 745 miles from where I now sit, and about the crumbling democracy of Turkey. But I didn’t write about these things, a decision that helped me grow as both a writer and human being.
In New York, I had literally nothing, and was focusing all of my energy on endless creative endeavors. I produced writing and art consistently, but my life was in a deadlock.
Fast forward seven writing-less months ahead and I’m no longer eating handfuls of amphetamines, I quit smoking, I'm (mostly) caffeine free, I teach English literature at an International school, and, on August 20, I'll marry one of the most beautiful and talented artists I’ve ever known—it's a life I never in a million years dreamt possible, and most certainly not in such a drastically short period of time.
While obviously there were other, much more influential factors, the fact remains that none of this was possible without my taking a conscious hiatus from writing, first. The practical advice most writers would offer to someone in my situation would be simply to write through this place of darkness; however, I found myself reduced to absolute passivity, to something that merely resembled a human being, to a creature no longer guided by rational thought. To say I was a mess upon my arrival in Istanbul would be an understatement. Strung out and jobless, I took to the only thing I really know—writing. I tried to write through it, about the experiences that led to my leaving America, but the writing was angry, and therefore bad. I was full of venom and angry at what I’d allowed myself to become in New York, but when I wrote, my words did nothing more than transport me right back to that place of chaos. I was trying to get my side of a story across, a story I now realize isn’t worth telling. It was a realization I arrived at only by way of my writing-hiatus, and one that very well may have saved my life. Even 5,000 miles from home, writing diminished that distance down to zero, so I had no choice but to stop. Instead of tearing myself apart inside, I learned to tell myself, “You’re not writing, and that’s okay.”
So the most reasonable piece of advice I can offer these days, after escaping New York alive, is this: while I believe writing is the most human act we can engage in, we mustn’t let it wholly define us as human beings. Writing became a burden for me, just another proverbial monkey on my back. I was writing because that’s what I was supposed to do, that’s who I was, and I lost sight of anything worth writing about. Even still, as these words now come, I am greeted by a great amount of anxiety with each sword stabbing at some raw nerve I cannot find. It's a pain I’ve always found, and continue to find some comfort in. But I also found myself so exhausted from life, a life nearly devoid of all meaning, that I had no choice but to cease to engage in an act I consider holy. I’d sworn off the idea of marriage from an early age, broke off relationships that were headed there, and never had kids—all to accommodate my ability to be a writer, to afford such a life without added burden.
As far back as the Neolithic Revolution, hunter-gatherers in the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia used what is referred to today as ‘slash-and-burn agriculture’ to make the soil more suitable for plant growth—a literal rebirth of the land induced by burning the existing crops to the ground. Life by way of fire. A match was lit for me back in America, and I had the choice to either use it to burn myself, or to clear the lands for my growth. And although it took me a few months, I finally made the right choice.
Ergo, I suggest taking a hiatus. Focus on something else, something new. For me it was teaching. I teach kids from Syria, Benghazi, Iran—kids who've seen the worst humanity has to offer, and who I’ve never heard utter a single complaint. I’ve learned to be grateful over the past few months—for what I have, and what I’ve allowed myself to work toward with the help of my partner. I’ve learned more about what it means to write during this period of time than I have over the entire period of my life. So take a day, a week, a month, a year, and just do something else. Step away and breathe, whether you think you need to or not. While your experience might not be as drastic as mine, you will learn something about yourself, which is ultimately what we are doing as writers whether we are conscious of it or not.
As Nelson Algren wrote brilliantly, “Whether he’s in writing, TV, radio, teaching or lecturing, he sees very well, the way things are going, that the main thing is not problems of the heart, but to keep one’s nose clean. Not to trouble oneself about the uneasy hearts of men. But to pass, safe and dry-shod, down the rushing stream of time.”
My nose is clean and, for the first time in my life, I am safe and dry-shod, moving safely down the rushing stream of life, all made possible by the fact I simply stopped writing. So I will feed my hungry cat now even though there is food already in her dish, head to school, and probably won’t write tomorrow, or the next day. And I couldn’t be happier, for the ezan has already sounded, and the sun has risen.
P. Casey Telesk is a writer and teacher living in Istanbul. He published his first short story, an Alternate History tale about the assassination of President Truman in his elementary school journal at the age of eight. His 1999-2005 anthology of bad breakup poetry has not yet found a home. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, he received a BA in English Lit from Penn State University, and is a graduate of the Wilkes University M.A./M.F.A. Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing about modernist literature, the Death of Affect, and the importance of structure in literary craft.