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Pink Slip Pilgrimage: A Broke Writer Needs a Loan

7 January 2013

From Gawker:

There are as many roads to penury as there are paupers to follow them. As a writer, I always tried to see my own journey as material for nostalgic anecdotes to be delivered during acceptance speeches at some national awards galas. I like to imagine my struggles as leisurely, rather loopy jaunts.

Today, in real life, this jaunt is looking really rough. I’m on my way to sign over the pink slip on “Moby Dick,” my white 2000 Buick Century, as security on a loan, so that I can pay my rent, two weeks late and counting. My destination is a storefront in a bleak San Jose strip mall between a liquor mart and a shoe repair shop. A fuscia neon sign beckons: “Fast Cash! Paycheck Advance! Auto Title Loans!” There, my signed pink slip will net me $1000 in cold cash, which I promise to repay over two years at an interest rate of about 98 percent.

I back out of my carport, find a jazz station playing rueful sax, and hit the road. The rain that threatened all morning arrives now in earnest, and the mist on my windshield quickly turns to tears, as if to make up for the ones I’m holding back. Somehow, my whole life seems prologue to this humiliating ordeal. It could be worse, I console myself, which only reminds me that it may, indeed, grow worse. The wipers begin beating time to the bitter scold in my head: why didn’t you, why did you, why didn’t you, why did you?

. . . .

“It’ll be okay, mom,” says my daughter, guessing the reason for my silence. She sits beside me now, as she always has, and in a way nothing has changed-although her once downy head has grown into an avalanche of blonde-streaked waves, and the rattles and sippy cups have given way to a plastic box of eye shadow that she dabs on in the passenger mirror.

She has just graduated from college and is herself seeking a “real” job. In the meantime, she has moved back with me-compounding the financial pressures but giving me a comrade in the trenches. I understand, without taking it personally, that to not follow in my footsteps is for her almost a career goal in itself. Who can blame her? Financial turmoil has shaped her life since her father left us when she was three years old.

I merge onto Highway 280 South. The road is nearly empty on this Saturday morning. I picture commuters still enjoying their leisurely breakfasts before heading out to spend their spendable incomes.

As the miles unreel ahead, I cannot resist backtracking mentally over my own highway of choices that delivered me to this pass. How many wrong turns? How many dead ends, detours, directions unheeded? Or is the problem deeper still? The map is wrong. The destination does not exist.

Perhaps-now that science is revealing the biology of personality-I am just genetically wired to be broke. My inborn character quirks always seemed to have veto power over good intentions and resolutions. By age seven, I was already displaying the traits that have cleft my life like a fault line: dismissive impatience with saving, impulsive overgenerosity, dislike for routine and generalized temperamental unmanageability. Reading Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ants, I quickly identified with my gangly orthopteral soul mate, shivering out in the cold with his inedible fiddle.

Link to the rest at Gawker and thanks to Brendan for the tip.

Beautiful Writing

29 Comments to “Pink Slip Pilgrimage: A Broke Writer Needs a Loan”

  1. P.G.

    Van Gogh sold one picture to his brother before his death. Mozart was constantly broke.

    I was amazed at the harshness of some of the responses, to what was surely a well-written piece.

    A young musician whose work I enjoy, Jillette Johnson*, was interviewed recently. She was asked, “What is plan B, if the music doesn’t work out as a career?”

    She replied, “There is no plan B. If I think of a plan B, I will not be putting 100% into plan A.”

    I salute the courage. I didn’t have it when my entrance was called. Don’t have it now.

    brendan

    *http://www.jillettejohnson.com/

  2. I thought this was a wonderful story and I can relate to her faults. I thought some of the comments were harsh and I didn’t agree with them. I think it was bravery on her part to quit her day job. Some might not think it was smart but to each his own. I wish her well.

    • I think you’re brave for even reading the comments. I’ve stopped reading the comments at most news sites because people are vicious and they’re especially vicious to those who have the audacity for try for something that is very difficult and very meaningful to them.

      It amazes me how people love to crush other peoples’ dreams. I mean, I understand you can criticize her way of going about things, and yeah, maybe she should have had a better system in place, but usually people just love to attack the very notion that someone would try to make something meaningful to them a reality.

  3. That is really a heartbreaking story. And it’s a reminder that while capitalism offers a lot of advantages, it also has a way of crushing dreams and opportunities for happiness.

    I don’t blame people who give up on writing because they don’t want to face those sometimes insurmountable odds. Even if you’re a really good writer, there’s never any guarantee that your writing will get noticed or that anyone will care. Our society just doesn’t value writing all that much and it sometimes amazes me that people are STILL willing to keep trying just to achieve that dream when surely every writer knows that in the back of their minds. I think that’s why so many writers have neuroses and anxiety/fear issues.

    It seems this woman made personal mistakes and thought she was above others struggling for mere existence the same as her, but I’d bet most of us have had to believe that at some point. Who else would even spend their time attempting to write for a living if they didn’t have those beliefs at some point? What other type of person would keep putting themselves out there to face rejection and dismissal over and over and over again?

    • That is really a heartbreaking story. And it’s a reminder that while capitalism offers a lot of advantages, it also has a way of crushing dreams and opportunities for happiness.

      I always try to bear in mind that it isn’t capitalism that crushes the dreams; capitalism makes it possible for a few people’s dreams to be fulfilled, which gives some others false hopes and enables them to be crushed later. In the Workers’ Paradise of the U.S.S.R., you did not write — ever — unless you were an officially accredited member of the All-Soviet Writers’ Union, and you wrote what your superiors told you to write. Writing anything else was just asking for a one-way ticket to the Gulag.

      The pre-capitalist world wasn’t much better: if you wanted to write, you had either to be independently wealthy, or have an aristocratic patron. (The distance between the aristocratic patron and the All-Soviet Writers’ Union is not as great as you might suppose.)

      Daniel Defoe made his enormous reputation partly by being about the first writer in England to earn a living by his pen. Since Defoe’s time, 99 percent of those who tried to live on writing have failed; before Defoe, it was 100 percent. I’d rather face long odds than have no chance at all.

      What other type of person would keep putting themselves out there to face rejection and dismissal over and over and over again?

      The kind who has no choice. Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert A. Heinlein both took up writing as a career because tuberculosis made them unfit to pursue the occupations they were trained for. George Orwell became a writer when his conscience would no longer let him serve in the Imperial Indian Police.

      I myself would write as a hobby, but write for money chiefly because it’s Hobson’s choice: the finest brains at one of our local career counselling operations could not think of anything else for me to do for a living that did not require a university degree. I tried for the degree, but lost my health in a car wreck and couldn’t finish — and here I am.

      • I think you took that as an attack on capitalism. It wasn’t. I realize that capitalism probably makes it *possible* to write for a living. And that doesn’t mean everyone will succeed. Nor does it mean that everyone has done what it takes to be successful in the marketplace.

        I think what it most likely means is there just hasn’t been a big enough market created for writing and that’s more a matter of working out the logistics of how to do it in a way that works for writers AND consumers. It probably means that the market has not become self-sustaining enough. We are in the middle of that happening, I believe, with the transition from having only publishing monopolies and print books to consumers having more choices as to how they consume the writing. I think pretty soon writers won’t have to crowd into overextended, dying universities to support themselves while the conservatives of our culture criticize them for not getting ‘real’ jobs or while conservatives criticize them for ‘failing today’s youth.’ Soon the best writers will probably have much better odds of supporting themselves just by their writing or by using their writing to supplement their other work experiences.

        Part of the problem with our culture is that people think any time you criticize one aspect of capitalism or our capitalism-driven culture that it’s somehow advocating socialism or something. I’m getting really tired of that reaction in American culture.

        • Part of the problem with our culture is that people think any time you criticize one aspect of capitalism or our capitalism-driven culture that it’s somehow advocating socialism or something.

          I’m sorry to have misdirected my complaint, then. I have heard the same complaint you made, almost verbatim, a good many times before; and it turned out that it usually was from someone advocating socialism — usually with the fantasy that they would land the favoured plum of a government-paid salary to sit and write full-time. I should not have lumped you in with that group on insufficient information.

      • Edgar Rice Burroughs reportedly got into writing because he was already broke, had a family to support, and saw what was being published in the pulps while waiting in a dentist’s office.
        “Even I can write better than this!”

        Turned out he was right. :)

        Rule 1: “If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed.”
        Rule 2: “Live and learn.”

  4. Wow, the comments are just – wow.

    I thought this was a very well-written, moving piece. You know, we make the best choices that we can, and we learn from them. I think the real courage in this piece is not when she gave up her job, but in writing this article and putting her regrets and choices out there – it’s vulnerable.

    I could be wrong, but I think she is grappling with whether she made a mistake. I don’t want to judge anyone else’s life, that’s for them to decide, but for me, that’s not the choice I would have made. There’s a distinction here – following your dreams is not the same thing as giving up your livelihood.

    You can separate your dreams and your art from your livihood. I am very careful to do that – it’s not even the insecurity of it all – although that’s something to take seriously, especially if you have a child to support – but I simply do not want what I write to be influenced by a pressure to sell. I think basing your livelihood on your art actually can make you LESS creative, rather than more, because you’ll feel more pressure to write for the audience, and for the market.

    At any rate, I wish this author the best of luck!

    • I think sometimes people just don’t realize HOW to chase their dream in a reasonable way, a way that doesn’t involve them giving up everything on a whim when they don’t have a good system in place. I can see a reason to criticize that, but even then, I think people should criticize responsibly.

      If you keep criticizing and demoralizing people, pretty soon they tend to get beaten down and fall into jobs they don’t even care about. And they don’t do a very good job at them. I think that’s one of the number one problems with jobs in the United States. There are millions of people doing jobs they couldn’t care less about and have no pride in doing, because someone destroyed their hope for other goals in life OR they haven’t developed other goals in life that are more attuned to their personalities. And now they’re just in those jobs for the paycheck. This just makes people bitter at the system and at life in general. I think it’s also why so many suffer from depression and anxiety problems in the United States. And it’s why we don’t rank very high on lists of countries that are actually happy despite all the money we have here.

      Unfortunately our feedback system is geared around celebrating those people who do manage to face down the odds and succeed. But for the average population it’s geared at two unrealistic things: crushing the hopes of others who have the desire to do the same and irresponsibly encouraging people to follow their dreams no matter what (without giving them realistic advice on how to do that). Both approaches are problems as I see it, but my main problem is the one that tells people they CAN’T do something (that they care about). I’ve noticed this from everywhere…from the school system, to the government, to the media to just peer to peer interactions…everywhere. People think this is reasonable and normal, but it’s actually just institutionalized defeatism on a wide scale.

      I believe that people should do what they’re passionate about and what they’re good at doing. Not what’s easy. Not what they’re just told to do because it’s ‘practical’ (because I’ve noticed that what’s practical to some people is really just a lack of imagination and drive disguised as being ‘reasonable’). And that doesn’t mean that since most people love movies that everyone should try to become an actor or a director. I think people would fall into their natural passion if we were just more encouraging and we gave *honest* feedback and criticism that wasn’t coming from a place of cruelty.

      I feel strongly that these are some of the main reasons that America doesn’t work the way people are told it should…and I feel that these are some of the reasons that people end up so bitter and distrusting towards the government, towards society, and towards the media. Our system is just very, very flawed.

      End of rant.

      • I think sometimes people just don’t realize HOW to chase their dream in a reasonable way

        That’s very true. I’ve also found that so many people who want to work in the arts experience so much knee-jerk defeatism from others that they can’t sort out the actual helpful advice from the blizzard of negativity. “Don’t quit your day job” can be meant in SO many different ways….

      • People think this is reasonable and normal, but it’s actually just institutionalized defeatism on a wide scale.

        One of the best life skills one can learn is where to go for the advice you really need, and knowing what advice to reject, be it one-on-one or institutional. “You can’t/shouldn’t do this,” is not good advice. It’s a controlling behavior that could mean, “I can’t do this and therefore you shouldn’t either,” or, “you need to be a good little drone and not rock the boat.”

  5. Meh. I quit my day job before I was ready, discovered I suck at freelancing, and went back to work for someone else.

    I have only limited sympathy for her. I’ve been broke, too, and deeply, deeply in debt due to under- and unemployment. I worked three jobs, seven days a week, to get out of it.

    Sometimes you have to suck it up and delay your dreams. Or find ways to fulfill them that don’t involve the risk of losing your car and your home. I mean, I wish her well and all that, but… she should get a day job until things pick up with her writing.

    • It’s true that sometimes you have to sacrifice and delay your dreams, but is the attitude that ‘oh I did it and you should be able to do it too?’ really that helpful to people suffering through this situation? I don’t think so. Advice like that tends to just make people more resistant and bitter in my experience. And worse than that, it’s just not all that helpful or useful despite it being from personal experience. I’ve found that you have to tell people the HOW and the WHY of the situation for them to really get it. Just saying ‘so what if your life sucks, mine did too so deal with it’ isn’t helpful.

      That said, yes you have to sacrifice early and often to get what you really want in life. Life does not afford us the opportunity to chase everything we want at the same time. Sometimes you can only have one thing or another thing. Sometimes you have to work at planning your life exceptionally well and get rid of everything else that doesn’t fit into that structure in order to reach your goals. You have to have superior discipline and insight and you have to make the information you have work *towards* your goals.

      I think this kind of advice applies particularly to women who are chasing their goals and had the woman in the article, Linda, gotten it sooner maybe she would have made different choices. I read an article the other day in The Atlantic about how women really can’t have it all. Since I am a woman, I feel that article was speaking to me. And I agree that women can’t have it all. Not everyone can have the amazing, fulfilling, high-paying job AND the great kids with the emotionally satisfying marriage. There just aren’t enough hours in the day for a lot of us. And that’s sad, and unfortunate, and maybe it will change in the future as the job market changes, but we have to adapt. Some women are going to have to choose between having a child/family or a great career where they do meaningful work. Some people are going to have to work extra hard to carve out paths for themselves and other people where none exists right now and that will require them sacrificing having a personal life or family. I think the best thing is to get people to realize that early on so they don’t make the mistake of having kids that they will abandon financially or emotionally later to pursue their other goals or so they won’t quit a job that is good enough while pursuing something greater. The best thing is to be honest and lay out the options in a realistic way without discouraging people from actually trying for difficult things. Our country was built on trying to achieve the difficult and we should continue supporting those people who are only acting in the spirit of what this country was founded on.

      • Sorry. When you’re so hard up for money that you have to go to a legal loan shark and use your car for collateral, it’s time to put your dreams on the back burner and get any job you can get until you are back on your feet financially. She has a very marketable skill, and refuses to use it.

        I really don’t think her goals are comparable with the American Dream, unless the dream has turned into “Go into debt so I can do what I want when I want it regardless of the consequences.”

        The Puritans and the Founders were very big about not getting into debt. Thriftiness was a big thing back then.

        • I have to agree with Meryl on this one. I’m all for pursuing your dreams, but when your dreams causing you to sell off major assets to pay for other major assets it’s time to readjust your financial plan. No one loves the idea of getting stuck in a crappy job just to pay the bills. But being homeless (or car-less) sucks just a little bit more than that.

          There’s a point of no return which you can spot coming, and if you don’t change direction before then your choices are made for you. I bet being a full-time writer will be a whole lot harder living in a shelter. I’ve worked my fair share of two and three jobs and way too much overtime to get ahead in my 20s and 30s. I also wrote non-fiction for pay part-time in my(published in medical articles for paramedics) 30s because the need to write was always with me, and if I couldn’t write fiction for pay full-time I was darn well going to write something.

  6. As usual, most of the nasty ones are screen names.

    Linda Boroff is obviously a writer with considerable experience. So I expect that she was pretty well aware when she submitted this to Gawker that the comments wouldn’t be all that sympathetic.

    So based upon that deduction, and the facts that she’s done what she does how she’s done it, this is a woman with a lot of courage and strength.

  7. Um. She has a kid. That changes the moral calculus a bit, no? Pursuing one’s dreams obviously takes courage, but it’s also a fundamentally selfish endeavor. They’re *your* dreams. And it’s not as though the choice is all black and white — plenty of writers write commercial stuff to pay bills while writing other stuff to pursue dreams.

    Self-indulgence is annoying in a 22 yr old, but understandable. It becomes something else in someone who is responsible for another human being. You don’t necessarily get to have your cake and eat it, too, at least not without seriously hedging your bets. That’s the thing: she wasn’t just taking these bold, courageous risks for herself, she was wagering for her kid as well, except the kid didn’t have a say.

    Not really getting all the back pats, honestly.

  8. Her kid just graduated from college. She can get a job and support herself. She moved back home after and added to her Mother’s finances. It would be different if the kid was little but she’s past 18.

  9. The car loan story that she talks about in this article, her daughter is out of school. She did manage to put her daughter through school though so her daughter seemed like she didn’t suffer that much. It seemed like she sacrificed a lot for her but she probably should of kept a job of some sorts to make ends meet but still I give her credit for being brave. Not many would do that. I still stand by her.

  10. There is also a lot of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning that is used by successful authors. (So you don’t strain your Latin memory, the phrase means, in essence, since that event followed this one, that event must have been caused by this one. It’s a classic logical flaw.)

    So the successful author takes a series of steps and is published and the lesson everyone draws is the reason he/she was published was because they took those steps.

    Quit my job, lived on welfare, wrote like crazy, ran into an agent at a bar, got a big advance, NYT bestseller followed doesn’t mean that everything that preceded the reward necessarily caused the reward to occur.

    • If humanity does not survive in the reasonably long term, it will, in my opinion, be due to the fact that most human beings are at some deep and fundamental level incapable of accepting the fact that correlation does not imply causation. (This is another way to translate the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, one favored by statisticians and scientists. Which anymore is largely redundant. :) )

      I have seen equally good arguments that it will be our inability to understand that growth is a limited phenomenon, but I think of them as more or less Fire and Ice in the Robert Frost sense. :)

      • Both of these fallacies, of course, are proudly and amply represented in discussions of modern publishing and especially e-publishing. :)

    • Good point, PG. But then artists are brain-washed into thinking they must always suffer for their art. In modern lingo, it generally means starving on welfare. *cough*BS*cough*

  11. This woman’s piece hits home here, more so than at Gawker. The harshest commenters there may have no idea what it’s like to pursue a dream in a precarious field, and fail. If you have a relatively stable job as an accountant, then you might think everyone should be doing the same thing.

    I think we can all relate to being where she is, or fearing being where she is. I fell back on plan B early in my career before I even gave plan A a serious try. Now that I cannot go back to the corporate world without having a meltdown – and who would hire me anyway, now? – I have no choice but to give everything to plan A.

  12. Been so far down “it looked like up to me,” and also a single parent of a little child long ago, I can understand many of the challenges the writer speaks about. I’ll keep her tucked into my prayers along with the so many others who feel called, come hell or high water. It’s a rough ride for most of us. If there’s any chance of prevailing with skill and luck, it’s done by keeping going, keeping writing, keeping honing.

    As for the commenters at ‘gawker’… it’s par for gawker and huffpo and many others sites. There’s a reason many sites close off comments option, and Drudge included. I dig The Passive Voice, for most all the comments are in the spirit of civility even when people have strong opines.

    Thanks.

  13. Reading this was so depressing for me. It made me think If I’ll ever have a good chance making a living writing full time.

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