On Money

I think about money a lot. This is the condition of being working-class. I know that I won the book lottery, but it wasn’t the book Powerball. It was more like the book scratch-off ticket. Someone wrote to me–not without resentment–“you just got this humongous book deal.” I’m not sure why she thinks that I have a humongous book deal, but I have never been anything but working class. I am still working class. I am still driving the same dented car. I am still living in the little cottage in the holler. I am still washing all of my own dishes by hand because I don’t have a dishwasher. My retirement fund recently told me that I will get $300 a month when I retire. It is not lost on me that even this, a retirement fund, is a privilege that so many others don’t have.

For years, I have only worn one pair of shoes per season. In the past few winters, it has been the same pair of black Merrell boots. In this past summer, when I had a book advance, it was a pair of Birkenstocks that I had found on sale. The two summers before were a pair of Danskos that I had found in a thrift shop for two dollars.

I am going on the job market, and while I know that I am stylish, I am not a “professional” dresser. I need to upgrade my wardrobe. I told my friend about my pattern with shoes. My friend was quiet for a long time. She is an assistant professor and has an Ivy League education, but she is not snobby (though we have obvious class differences). Along with my single mother friend, she  is my best friend in this town. I could see her ruminating. I thought that she was thinking of shoe suggestions for me, but then she said, with a certain amount of sadness, “I never realized that you only wear one pair of shoes per season.”

Later that evening, I sent her pictures of a couple pairs of shoes. “Which ones should I buy?” I asked.

She wrote back, “Both.”

I bought one pair.

I posted this article recently by a writer who had written that she had sold a book to “critical acclaim” but then went broke. I’m not going to link to it because it annoyed me, but it can be found easily enough with a Google search. A friend who I trust said that the writer’s novel is great, and I don’t doubt that, but her tone in that article was so off-putting. A summary: though the book was critically acclaimed and received blurbs by famous writers and even musicians, she didn’t come close to paying back her book advance. She quit her job at a nonprofit so that she could focus on writing full-time, but she didn’t have enough left over from the book advance to feel comfortable because she was relying on her husband’s income. Quitting her job put pressure on her marriage, and also, she wasn’t writing anyway. She tried working for the Postal Service but discovered that, at the end of the long days, she couldn’t write.

In one particularly entitled screed, she listed all of the jobs that she could have if she wanted them. They were jobs that many people would kill to have, that I would kill to have, but then, she said that she didn’t want to work one of those jobs. She wanted to be paid $40,000 a year just to write. That was her final conclusion.

The first part of the article resonated with me. I feel a lot of anxiety about not paying back my book advance, about disappointing my publisher (to be clear, my editor seems perfectly happy with the book, and my anxiety is likely unwarranted). I feel a certain amount of anxiety about my second book, but not too much because I am already doing a lot of writing outside of the memoir that will be turned into my second book. I feel no pressure to make any money off of a second book because it has never occurred to me that I could make money off of a book.

Most of all, I feel a lot of anxiety about going broke. Anxiety about going broke is in my bones. In my spine. Anxiety about going broke propels me forward, keeps me taking other work, and keeps me producing.

That is why I’m not quitting my day job, whatever that job ends up being. On my Facebook post, one professor implied that I think of academia as a job rather than a career. She did her PhD in the same program as me, and I do think that there is a lot of tension amongst folks who are getting the PhD in Creative Writing, and folks who have MFAs, and folks who make a living off of their writing (those folks being in the position to just sit back and observe the ongoing conversation), but I disagree with her about how I distinguish a j-o-b, job. I’m getting the PhD because I’m a scholar in addition to being a writer, and I don’t see those two things as being in opposition to each other. I  also think that teaching creative writing is a way of turning my work and love into something larger than myself, and that is the kind of alchemy that a writer cannot find in another profession, like say, the Postal Service.

I recognize that academia throws up obstacles to writing, but it’s also uniquely supportive of writing as research. I’m inclined to think that someone who doesn’t recognize the privileges that academia affords writers has never worked a 40 hour a week job for the Postal Service, or in my case: dishwashing, waitressing, ski lift operating, digging rocks out of streams full of cow shit, etc.

But I’m digressing.

There were a lot of comments on my post, and there was a lot of contention. One friend, also a single mother, astutely pointed out that the writer didn’t talk about improving working conditions for all writers, but only for herself. Another friend, the famous writer who generously let me stay in her gorgeous San Francisco house this past summer, pointed out that, ultimately, literature is democratic, and if one doesn’t sell books, they can’t really expect to make money off of their writing. Still other friends agreed with the writer, and if I’m going completely honest, that peeved me.

It peeved me in such an unexpected way. I was even peeved at my best friend who I love like family. I was peeved enough to give her the silent treatment when she called me (because she could tell from my comments that I was peeved). I ignored her call and texted, “I don’t want to talk to you,” which was really unusual for me. Even then, I realized that part of the reason that I didn’t want to talk to her was because I knew that I couldn’t articulate the source of my frustration.

But I have had more time to think about it, and I realize that I am resentful of people who are partnered. I work really hard not to resent others because I don’t think that jealousy gets anyone anything. The person who sent me that resentful message about my “humongous book deal” is certainly no closer to getting her own book deal because she has spent time resenting me.

It occurred to me that, in the comments on that Facebook post, the people defending the article were primarily partnered women (I think that men were mostly absent from the conversation, as they usually are on my posts). That author was able to quit her job and try to focus on writing full-time because she had a partner who was willing to support her. She discovered that set-up didn’t work, and she was resentful. I get that. But to then propose that the world owed her some kind of monetary compensation anyway?

Do I think that art should be valued more than it is? Of course. Do I think that writers should be compensated more than they are? Of course. Do I think that a successful writer should be able to make a living off of their writing? Of course. But this is not always the reality of the world that we live in. The writing world, just like the rest of the American economy, is capitalist, so we must find ways to work within it, or we must change it.

I’m happy to agitate in an effort to change the entire system, but I am not concerned with the complaints of a disillusioned writer who thought that they were going to get rich off of their book and didn’t.

Ultimately, though, I guess my resentment stems from the fact that anyone who thinks that they can quit their day job and write exclusively must already have a support system in place. Maybe that support system is that they’re actually making enough money off of their writing, in which case, that’s fantastic, and I commend them. Maybe they have an inheritence. Also awesome (I don’t commend unearned money, but I don’t resent it unless it’s treated as a nonentity by the inheritee).

And maybe they have a partner who is willing to assume part of the burden of that loss of income. I get that, and I support that, but having a partner who can assume the burden of part of the bills is a privilege. I call it “partnered privilege.” Do I resent someone because of their partnered privilege? No, not until they start writing essays about how they should get paid $40,000 a year just to write.

Or until they start defending those essays.

Single mothers can’t even entertain the thought of quitting their day jobs to write exclusively.

I will never get to think like that.

When I was in San Francisco this summer, I loved the city. People kept asking me, “Would you like to move here?” My response was always the same, “Not unless I win the Powerball.”

You see, I’m only one person, but I have a little one who is dependent on me. When I divorced Caleb, I made concessions that I probably shouldn’t have made because I wanted so badly to be free. I gave up about $40,000 in equity in the house. My lawyer had put a request in for spousal support, and Caleb threatened me. He said that, if I didn’t drop it, he would file a motion to keep me from leaving the state with Reed. My mother actually said, “Maybe you’ll have to leave Reed for a while,” which frankly, is one of the most progressive and feminist things that she has ever said, but we all knew that I wasn’t going to leave Reed with Caleb. So I dropped the request.

At our one and only divorce hearing, the judge was angry, he asked me why I had dropped that request. He told me that he had been planning on awarding it. I was taken aback, and I said, “Because I wanted an agreement.”

He then asked Caleb why he wasn’t okay with paying me spousal support, and Caleb said, “Well, she’s going to get a PhD, and she’s going to make more money than me someday.”

The judge threw down his pencil.

He raised his voice. He shouted at Caleb something like, “She is the mother of your child. You should want her to succeed. You should want to support her in that. What’s good for her is good for your child.” But Caleb doesn’t care much about what’s good for me or what’s good for our child, so I am on my own.

In San Francisco, a friend took me out to dinner. I told her that I could never move there, that I can’t afford to pay the rent on a two-bedroom in an expensive city. She said, “But don’t you get child support?” And I was open. I gave her the amount. She was shocked. “That’s almost nothing,” she said. And she was right. It’s almost nothing.

I am not just on my own; I am on my own while supporting someone else. Would I like to quit my job and just write? Probably not because I actually like having something in my life besides writing,, but it doesn’t matter because I’ll never even entertain the thought. I’ll never have enough privilege for that fantasy.

The debate about whether one can make enough money off of their writing to pay the bills will continue, but let’s be honest, it will also continue to be by those who can pay their bills in other ways. Those of us who are sitting on a power bill that is three months long will just keep watching, observing, and wondering how it would feel to have that kind of security.