Posted by: emjb | March 21, 2006

The View from Here

Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is to do what comes easy to you. At least, it’s hard if what comes easiest to you is something that the world doesn’t put a high value on, and you enjoy survival.

Take being a writer. Everybody and their dog thinks they could be a writer for a living, if they wanted to. And anyone who’s actually tried it knows such people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. My theory on this gap between perception and reality is that people are only looking at the physical effort involved (typing words onto paper) and thinking “Hey, I could do that!” The actual work, the part that involves figuring out what to say and how to say it, is invisible. The other part, where you send your creation to a publisher and wait for weeks or months to get a rejection or an offer that won’t even pay for your groceries, is also ignored.

The only career with even less guarantee of payback might be being a musician, because at least writers don’t have to pay for recording time or guitar strings or any of the 800 other little pieces of equipment musicians need.

And all of that means that Matt and I live in a perpetual game of economic juggling. (Editor’s note: this is not a prelude to a money request). If we take the paths that make the most money, we cut ourselves off from the things we love to do, and make ourselves crazy doing things we hate to do forty hours a week. If we do the things we love, we have no money, or very intermittent money, but no insurance or any other of life’s little luxuries.

I’m not saying all of this to whine. So many have it so much worse than we do, and no one has forced us to make these choices. On the other hand, as much as we hate being broke and struggling all the time, we can clearly see how miserable we would be if we gave up what we wanted to do for something more lucrative. And there’s the fragile hope we cling to, that someday what we’re doing now will pay off for us, and we can have enough to live on while we do what we care about.

The funny thing (funny ha-ha and funny strange) is that I believe more in that hope now than I used to, despite enough economic blows to the head to knock out Muhammad Ali pre-dementia. It truly is faith, because I have absolutely no concrete evidence that either of us will ever be able to make a living creatively. The merest thread of money + family support separates us from destitution. It could unravel at any time. But so far, it hasn’t. Despite all those blows, we’ve come a long way by hook, crook, and the skin of our teeth.

“You haven’t reached your goal after all your trying,” says Despair. “Ah, but you haven’t wiped out all chance of reaching your goal, which means you shouldn’t give up yet,” says Hope. I don’t know which voice is right. Despair certainly does its share of keeping me up nights, watching Daria reruns and eating junk food to drown it out. But Hope is amazingly persistent, which either means that it’s real, or that my powers of self-delusion are greater than I thought. But as I tell Matt often, if in fact it does all goes to hell and we reach bottom, then we will have plenty of time whilst living in our cardboard box to wallow in our self-hatred and feelings of failure. Why do it ahead of schedule?

Neither of us can change who we are. We’ve both tried, at different times, to relegate our creative selves to the back burner. It made us crazy, a much worse kind of crazy than our normal kind, a bitter, angry, uncaring kind of crazy. And when I worry about raising Nathan with all this financial uncertainty, I think about raising him with lots of financial security but all that bad craziness in his parents, and I can’t see putting him through that. I went to school with kids whose parents were like that, and it messed them up. I want Nathan to have enough to eat and clothes on his back and all the things he really needs, and I’ll work my ass off to make sure that happens. But I have to keep my soul intact too, or else he’ll lose something more important.

It’s hard to explain what we’re doing to other people, even the ones who support us. When success takes its sweet time coming, everything you say starts to sound like excuses. People start to wonder if you’re just being immature, refusing to suck it up and take on your adult responsibility to be a productive citizen. And I’ve gotten used to getting that vibe from some people, because I understand how they could see things that way.

But dammit, we’ve worked so hard for what little we’ve gained; I’m not ready to let this go. We’re still poor as hell, but not because we’ve been camping out on people’s couches smoking bowls. We have accomplished things that we never thought we would. I have five books published, for cryin’ out loud. Listed in Amazon and everything. I have online articles from previous jobs, too. Google my real name, and you’ll see a lot that I’m proud of. Matt’s got a CD out that continues to sell three years later, to people all over the world, people who have heard of him through some unimaginable chain of circumstance that we’ll never know about. He’s been featured on a Warren Zevon tribute CD, and had his music used in a PBS documentary. No, it’s not enough to support us, but considering that we’ve done all of it with almost no assistance from anyone, no resources, no connections, and no guidelines, I don’t really feel like I need to make excuses for not yet being multi-millionaires.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t like this uncertainty, I don’t like poverty, and I don’t think there’s anything inherently noble in being poor. If someone offered us big pots of money to do what we’re doing, I’d accept it happily and skip all the way to the bank. Like lots of poor people, I have very specific plans for what I’d do if either I won the lottery or met a genie who would grant me three wishes.* I’d like nothing better than a nice non-McMansion house, savings in the bank, a yard for Nathan, a studio for Matt, and an office for me. And we could have many of those things now if we had made different choices five or ten years ago. But when we try to imagine being the people who made those choices, we can’t. We are what we are, and if that makes us look like failures to some people, well that can’t be helped.

*Shut up. You know you’ve thought about that too. And I won’t tell you what all of mine are, but obviously, tons of tax-free money is one of them.

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