It’s hard to write about being broke because brokeness is so relative; “broke” people run the gamut from the trust-funded jerk whose drinks you buy because she’s “so broke right now” to the people who sleep outside the bar where she’s whining. But by summer 2012 I was broke, and in debt, and it was no one’s fault but mine. Besides a couple of freelance writing assignments, my only source of income for more than a year had come from teaching yoga, for which I got paid $40 a class. In 2011 I made $17,000.
During that $17,000 year I also routinely read from my work in front of crowds of people, spoke on panels and at colleges, and got hit up for advice by young people who were interested in emulating my career path, whose coffee I usually ended up buying after they made a halfhearted feint toward their tote bag–purses. I felt some weird obligation to them and to anyone else who might be paying attention to pretend that I wasn’t poor. Keeping up appearances, of course, only made me poorer. I’m not sure what the point of admitting all this might be, because I know that anyone who experiences a career peak in his mid-twenties will likely make the same mistakes I did, and it’s not even clear to me that they were all mistakes, unless writing a book is always a mistake, which in some sense it must be.
In 2008 I sold a book-in-progress for $200,000 ($170,000 after commission, to be paid in four installments), which still seems to me like a lot of money. At the time, though, it seemed infinite. The resulting book—a “paperback original,” as they’re called—has sold around 8,000 copies, which is about a fifth of what it needed to sell not to be considered a flop. This essentially guarantees that no one will ever pay me that kind of money to write a book again.
It took me a while to realize that my book had failed. No one ever told me point-blank that it had.
It was more like the failure occurred in tiny increments over the course of two years, after which it was too late to develop a solid Plan B.
I spent some of the advance on clothes that no longer fit my body/life, but mostly I spent it on taxes—New York even has a city tax, on top of the state and federal kind—and rent. I lived alone for three years in Brooklyn, paying $1,700 a month ($61,200 all told) for a pretty but small one-bedroom within eyeshot of the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway. I also spent $400 a month on health insurance. At one point I thought I would find another full-time job after finishing the book, but then I must have convinced myself that teaching yoga part time would better enable my writing. I also thought that I would immediately start another book, which I would sell, like the first, before I’d written half of it. In order to believe this I had to cut myself off from all kinds of practical realities; considering these realities seemed like planning for failure. In retrospect it seems clear that I should never have bought health insurance, nor lived by myself.
. . . .
While some people, mostly young women, embraced my book the way I’d dreamed they might, much of the reaction had been vehemently negative—not just critically, but among my family and friends. In the fall that followed the summer of my book’s publication, my entire immediate family briefly stopped speaking to me. No one would acknowledge that this was because of the book—officially, the last straw was a stupid fight that happened during the two-day car ride home from a family vacation. I’d spent the whole vacation whining about my bad reviews and jonesing for the internet. Whenever I took out my computer, trying to write something, anything, to prove to myself that I still could, my mom suspected—as she later confessed—that I was blogging about how miserable our vacation was, and specifically about her. I wasn’t, and I felt her suspicions were irrational, but they weren’t.
She’d hated the way I’d portrayed her in the book, and I owed her an apology but couldn’t muster one that would satisfy her. No one wants to hear you say, “I’m sorry but I might do it, or something like it, again.” But in the months that followed I discovered that, even when I wanted to, I couldn’t write well in the first person anymore. I tried, but what came out read as self-conscious, self-censored, chastened—and worst of all, insincere.
. . . .
When I look at my bank and credit card statements from 2010 it’s easy to see what happened, but at the time it was so hard to know which decisions were good and which were stupid. And even had I known, when I received the last quarter of my book advance, that it would be my last substantial paycheck for the next few years, I don’t think I would have spent it more slowly. I wouldn’t have been able to. So much of the money we spend—or I spend, anyway—is predicated on decisions made once and then forgotten, payments that are automated or habits so ingrained they may as well be automated. You think you’ll tackle the habits first—“I’ll stop buying bottled water and fancy cups of coffee”—but actually the habits are the last to go. I only stopped buying bottled water when I literally did not have any cash in my wallet at any time. In the meantime, I canceled my recurring charitable donations (all two of them), my cable, my Netflix, all my subscriptions. I moved in with Keith. I stopped seeing my doesn’t-take-anybody’s-insurance therapist, but only after I owed her $1,760.
. . . .
My first clue that my book would not be a bestseller came in a marketing meeting about six months prior to publication. Actually there were several clues in that meeting. The first came when a marketing assistant suggested that I start a blog, and I had to explain that her bosses had acquired my book in part because I was a well-known blogger. The second came when my publicist asked how I thought they should position my book. She rattled off a short list of commercially successful essay collections by funny, quirky female writers like Sloane Crosley, Laurie Notaro, and Julie Klam. Books with “Cake” and “Girls” in the title and jokey subtitles.
Having worked at a publishing house, I know that it’s not possible for everyone who works at a publishing house to read all the books coming out that season, or even parts of them, or even the descriptions of them in the catalog or in-house “tip sheets.” But I also know that if a book is supposed to be a “big” book, everyone in the office will read it. I was a young woman, so of course they had lumped me in with the cake-girl books. But my book was not cakey. I had no idea how to explain this to people. I clearly still don’t. Knowing how obnoxious it would sound, but feeling I had to say it anyway, if only to have said it, I told them that they had to “go all out.” “Say that I’m the voice of my generation,” I told them. They looked at me like I’d emitted a long, loud, smelly fart. And so—swear to god—I amended what I’d said:
“Okay, say I’m a voice of my generation.”