I Am Broke (Because I’m A Writer)
Currently, I am broke. I only have 50 dollars left, and no major real hope of acquiring any more dollars any time soon. I actually have $51.20 if you want to get down to brass tacks. 50 is not a good number to have, I have decided, and other people agree with me.
For example, my girlfriend agrees with me. I relentlessly and neurotically avoid checking my bank account when it gets low, which gives you a good concept of my life-planning skills, and which also explains how I have reached a point in my life where I can say things like “I have $51.20 as my net worth for all my years of existence on this planet.” But I did finally check my bank account yesterday, and then I called my girlfriend up in a rush:
“50, I only have 50!” I said.
“50 what?” she said.
“That is not a good number to have,” she sagely replied.
So true! Except that it’s not true really, and she’s wrong. It’s just not a good number to have of money. Like, for example, if you have 50 penguins, then that’s a Jim Carrey movie — and that’s awesome. Or maybe it’s not awesome, but I like penguins, so it’s awesome. Or if you called up your friend and were like “I have 50!” and your friend was like, “50 what?” and you were like, “Tacos!” then your friend’s response would be something like: “50 tacos, how the hell did that happen? And, uh, so what should we do? Should we throw small party in your backyard or what? …Hey, is it Cinco de Mayo yet? Oh, that means ‘Fifth of May,’ I always do that, stupid question, sorry.”
The President on the 50-dollar bill is President Grant, who is universally considered to be one of the worst presidents in American history. He also died broke, which is true. He died broke in a poorhouse while finishing his memoirs which he needed to publish so that his family could have a little money after his death. After President Grant, the U.S. Government started giving pensions to presidents so that wouldn’t happen anymore, which is also true. “I am a verb,” Grant wrote in his memoir. That is the only sentence that I know from his memoir. But I know that Ulysses S. Grant did not write “I am very good with money” in his memoir, for Ulysses S. Grant was a truth-teller.
Anyway, there is a reason that the song by Puff Daddy and the L.O.X. is called “It’s All About the Benjamins.” Because it’s just never, never about the Grants. It just really never is. Sometimes I wonder stuff. Like, if Benjamin Franklin could travel forward in time and see that that hip-hop artists are using his name as widely accepted slang for a large quantity of money, well, how would he feel? I just realized that I can’t go much further with this line of thought and have it still be workable for publication. Like, he’d actually probably literally say something like “…Goodness, I see that these slaves are certainly doing interesting things with their slave-music,” because that’s what black people were back then, but that’s disastrous and will probably be cut by my editor. I’m sort of panic-typing at this point because I need to make money by writing this article because I’m poor. Anyway.
Sometimes, I wonder stuff. Because I’m a writer. Being a writer, or wanting to be a writer is something you’re supposed to grow out of at some point in your life. Like, if your son or daughter comes to you when they’re five and says, “Daddy, I want to be a writer,” then your reaction is this: “Of course you do, angel. That’s simply wonderful.” And then you call up all your friends and are like: “Why, our little Zoë/ Logan/ Jayden/ Brooklyn/insert-stupid-name-here… is simply a prodigy. Why he/she said simply the most darling thing this afternoon — oh you want to share about your child too? Fine; I suppose.” You say this while swilling a brown-colored highball-type-liquid around in a highball glass.
However, if your same kid comes and says this to you where they’re, say, 23: “I’mma be a writer, pops. Got an unpaid internship thing swingin’ with N+1 as we speak; yo, throw me some bread for rent.” If your kid says that at that age then your reaction is this: “Get a fucking job. Seriously. Get. A fucking. Job.”
Indeed. And that’s something that we should all do; we should all get fucking jobs. But I chose not to. I never fully grew up. I chose not to get a fucking job. To quote Mark Renton in Trainspotting, “I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got
Writing as addiction is a concept that I feel needs to be explored more. At least, it needs to be explored more as far as it concerns me. I never grew up. But what should I do? There’s a part in Bukowski’s novel Women where he brings a new girl home to live with him. I should mention at this point that I’m not a huge Bukowksi fan but that he can be okay sometimes. Anyway. He brings her home and she asks if she’s going to be interfering with his writing, by being there, by cleaning the house and doing her yoga and just generally living there and such. And he says, “Nothing can stop me from writing, it’s a form of insanity.” Yeah.
Nothing can stop me from writing either, and I don’t care about money, but I do start caring when I only have 50 dollars left, which we’ve already discussed, see above. I work hard and write all the time, but I’m a freelance writer, which pays, per hour, about the same as working at Burger King. I know this because I went down the street and applied at Burger King the other day.
The other problem is that I’m only partially writing for you — I mean, hey… you; you’re great — but mostly I am focused on making the writing good which means that I throw stuff out, a lot. Because you can’t just sit down and write and have it be automatically good. But every time I throw stuff out because I feel that it’s not good enough — no one else ever really says that it’s not good enough — so every time I do that, make an artistic decision like that, I’m actively making myself poorer.
It’s a real pickle, and it’s something that I didn’t consider when I was 23 and deciding that no, I was going to be a writer for real, brah, and so, throw me some money, pops. Pops wasn’t excited by that plan, which of course is how it should be, but I did the plan anyway, sans funding, and now I’m a poor writer, and being a poor writer is romantic for two, three weeks, maximum, but I’ve been doing it for years now.
At this point you’re starting to think about leaving a comment on this essay. “Firstworldprob–” you’re starting to type in your head. Please stop doing that. Number one, if you’re leaving a comment on a website, then all of your problems are first world problems too, so you’re not really saying anything by saying that. What you’re saying is this, “I am temporarily feeling reflexively superior, and am using those feelings to distract myself from my own life, wherein I also experience first world problems.”
Also, no one walks around like that. If your girlfriend dumps you, you don’t say to yourself: “Ah, well, that’s a first world problem, I could be starving to death on a hilltop in Tibet right now, so I will use that to feel joyous.” No one approaches life like that. We all experience pain as we experience it; the most we can do is express our feelings with restraint and good taste and with the consciousness that yes, there is someone out there with a bigger problem than ours. If someone stubs his toe in Kenya, does he pause and say, “Wait, is this a third-world problem because I’m in Kenya, or no, wait, people in Manhattan also stub their toes. Gee, now I don’t know how to feel.” No; no one reacts in that way. We all experience pain in the way that we experience it.
Nor I am necessarily asking for pity. It’s my fault, that I write obsessively, and that I have chosen a career that pays about the same as Burger King. It’s my fault that this essay is too long. Last night, someone taught an essay of mine at NYU. Before that, an essay of mine was taught to a class at Columbia. This does not make me any less poor, but it does make me think that, hey, maybe I am a good writer: maybe I’m onto something with this whole thing. But I do miss having more than one pair of shoes. Also, 50 dollars. I’m losing the thread of what I’m talking about.
I did one of those “_____” things again because I was losing the thread of what I was talking about. Because I put my phone number in an essay, once — well, twice — and because my email address is in my bio, sometimes people write and call me, asking if they should be writers. Sometimes I do not respond. Sometimes I don’t respond because I don’t want to sound bitter, or grouchy. And sometimes I am in no way bitter or grouchy, and feel very content with my life.
Sometimes I don’t respond because I feel that what I say will not necessarily make sense to a young person (I’m in my 30s), and I don’t mean that condescendingly — what happens is that I visualize myself being young, and visualize myself saying my own words to me, and see myself not understanding them, because you can’t really know a thing until it happens to you — because how could you?
Sometimes I do respond. Sometimes very young people (eighteen, or even younger!) ask me, “What’s it like, being a writer,” and I’m like, “It’s like ‘The Lady of Shallot,’” which is a poem that no one reads anymore, possibly because no one reads very much anymore, or maybe they do, I’m not sure. And then they’re like “What?” …Look; it’s a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which is about writing poetry. Though that’s the subtext of the poem, not the text. Most people think it’s about a hot chick who’s insane, and also about knights and horses or something.
Four gray walls, and four gray towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent isle imbowers
The Lady of Shalott.
…There she weaves by night and day
A magic web with colours gay.
She has heard the whispers say,
A curse is on her if she stay
To look down to Camelot.
She knows not what the curse may be,
And so she weaveth steadily,
And little other care hath she,
The Lady of Shallot.
Don’t you see? Do I have to explain, am I always having to explain; I am always having to explain. I am a writer and I’m always having to explain. She’s art, poetry, whatever, and she doesn’t even necessarily want to be; she didn’t choose it, it’s just her life. And then she sees Sir Lancelot from afar, though her mirror–
His clear brow in sunlight glow’d;
On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;
…He flash’d into the crystal mirror,
“Tirra lirra,” by the river
Sang Sir Lancelot.
She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro’ the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look’d down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott.
And she’s moved to write a poem for him, except her poem is her life.
Down she came and found a boat
Beneath a willow left afloat,
And round about the prow she wrote
The Lady of Shalott.
That’s all that the text of her poem says: “The Lady of Shallot.” Her life, and her body. “The living world for text,” as William Butler Yeats said, but that’s a different poet; let’s not get distracted here.
And she gets into the boat and drifts down the river–
…And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy fields and hills among,
They heard her singing her last song…
Chanted loudly, chanted lowly,
Till her blood was frozen slowly,
And her eyes were darken’d wholly,
Turn’d to tower’d Camelot;
For ere she reach’d upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
She’s so much a part of her art that she kills herself, don’t you understand this, yet? I realize that discussing a poem like this is agonizing, but Jesus. She kills herself, get it? “…I killed myself, writing this, and then all I get are jerks leaving comments like ‘#whitepeopleproblems’.” “…I killed myself, making fresh blueberry waffles for you for breakfast, artisinal blueberries, and you didn’t even say ‘thanks’ — I make you something nice every morning and you don’t even notice, you never even say anything. I want a divorce!” It’s the same thing. …Don’t you people see yet, what will it take to make you see? You people are like a great beast. You’re like a blind thing, stumbling aimlessly over the earth.
…Out upon the wharfs they came,
Knight and burgher, lord and dame,
And round the prow they read her name,
The Lady of Shalott.
Who is this? and what is here?
…And they cross’d themselves for fear,
All the knights at Camelot:
But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, “She has a lovely face:
God in his mercy lend her grace,
The Lady of Shalott.”
She makes the living world her text. She kills herself with passion. “I put everything I had into making this thing!” people say sometimes. And she dies and she floats down the river. And Lancelot, the dope, looks at her corpse, the text that remains after her — for words are what are present; written words are what’s present of us even when we’re absent… He looks at her, the dope. And he says, “Oh, gosh, she had a pretty face. …SMH, LYLAS, YOLO.” What an idiot.
And that’s what writing is. I die for you, but not really for you, I die because I love doing it so much, but I also need you, and sometimes I sort of love you abstractly and sometimes I just plain dislike you. I die, I kill myself, I float down the river, my words reach you, and you’re like, “This article is twiddle.” And then an hour later, “Whoops, I meant ‘twaddle’ in that last comment.” I die for you, sort of, but also for me, and I cannot stop, because it’s my life. And the reasons? There are no reasons.
I have 50 dollars in my bank account and that’s okay, I guess. It is, at least, my life. …I’m sorry that this article rambled so much. …I’m sorry that it started out funny and then became preachy and unfunny. I’d like to rewrite it, but I have to go write another article for money now. I am half in love with shadows. I can’t stop writing. …I’m sitting out here, in a shed, next to the flophouse where I live, and I’m getting bit by clouds of mosquitoes. And sometimes, my thoughts wander, and I think, “Clouds of mosquitoes; the animal world is weird. Mosquitoes are almost unbearable, but not quite. It’s like economics, it’s like the science of misery. You go right up to the limit of what people can bear, and then you stop.” And I have thoughts like this, and I think they’re profound, and I think I should share them, and then I start typing, and that’s why I’m a writer, and poor. Anyway; I did my best with this article. “He did the best he could with what he had to work with,” that’ll be my epitaph. Anyway, this essay is done, so now cut the check for me, because it’s all about the Grants, bay-bee, because I don’t know, I thought that I’d end the essay that way. …It seemed funny at the time.
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