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My recent hiatus from freelance writing culminated in an existential crisis that I now think was actually about money.  It’s interesting how money—getting it, keeping it, losing it, worrying about it, hating it, enduring its fraught passage through our lives—often seems to be the underlying rule and mean in situations we first thought were about love or fate or right choices.  Life might not always be about money.  But lately I’ve had a hard time seeing when it isn’t.

The realization hit me while I was cutting banana trees for my neighbor.  Every freelancer encounters dry spells and every dry spell brings angst, a spate of dreadful job applications, and self-imposed austerity measures which help far less than you think they should.  In the middle of that, volunteering to prune banana trees should be therapeutic.  It some ways, it is.

In others, it only drives the nail of precarity deeper into your skull: what am I doing when I should be looking for a new paying project?  What am I doing volunteering for anything?  What is my age?  What choices have I made that put me here?  How much am I to blame?  How do I set this worry and anger aside so I can get back on the hustle?  Will this petty opportunity cost return as top ramen and hot dogs, holy T-shirts and rent anxiety?  Where will I be this time next year?  And will I have all the teeth I have now?

These are questions freelancers never want to ask but inevitably do.  This is the fear that only those with money have the luxury of being generous.  This is how your world gets smaller, how you end up optimizing every moment for work instead of living a life.  So I pruned my neighbor’s banana trees with a Ryobi P519 Reciprocating Sawzall in high tropical humidity and tried not to wallow.

Heavy yard work can be good for the soul, especially work that involves razor-sharp power tools.  Still, through the whole day, my inner existential calculator-self-critic-time-clock was hard at work dredging up a range of facts, assumptions, and figures that all led to the same thought: kindness is stupid when you’re broke.

Unfortunately, by that reasoning, so is art, writing, music, libraries, museums, public broadcasting, kite flying, junior college, cooking, learning languages, community theater, and any other thing that brings joy and meaning to someone whose emotional life isn’t completely constrained by making a buck.  It’s what the ladies’ self-help success guru, Penelope Trunk, used to say when she’d argue that graduate school in the humanities should require a trust fund. In her reductive materialism, culture and self-expression are supposed to come with a price tag like everything else.  And if you can’t afford it, well, get back in your cage.

The commodification of kindness and creativity is something I hate as much as anything I’ve ever hated, a set of beliefs about the world that I vehemently reject.  Of course, I do.  I’m a former English teacher.  I have a hard-earned PhD in the subject.  I write books.  And those skills also feed me as a freelancer, even if the life I lead is a bit like that of a low-stakes professional gambler.  Nevertheless, poverty sucks.

I dislike large parts of capitalism, at least, the post-industrial variety carried into my generation by the Boomers.  But I do think my fellow Gen-Xers doth protest a bit much.  My parents’ post-WWII generation did the best they could and, in many cases, that was pretty great.  The people around me, born in the early 1970s, who came of age in the late 80s and early 90s, also did their level best.  Put into the widest global perspective for our time, we had it pretty good.  And I believe in hard work.

Everyone I knew growing up in lower-middle-class southern California shared that belief and mostly survived.  Many of us, especially the arts and humanities types, went into debt and paid an enormous psychological price to do the things we felt called to do.  And we seemed to enjoy a much smaller return on those efforts than that of previous generations.  But we still shut our mouths and tried to make a living.  I guess we’re still trying.

But millennials?  Gen-Z?  I’m not sure I know what form of life they are.  Terms like “self-entitlement,” “performative victimhood,” and “Twitter mob” do come to mind.  When I interact with them socially or read about them as a group, I come away feeling like I’ve encountered an undulant mass of mewling, protoplasmic, always-online identity cosplayers.

I know that this is not true and that sweeping generalizations are inherently invalid.  And I suspect generations largely aggregate into the same qualities and quantities that have always existed; though, I’d be hard pressed to come up with an earlier analogue for Instagram catgirls,  and gig sensitivity readers. These generations are tomorrow’s freelance writers and Uber drivers. And there will be so many more of them.

At the same time, I wonder if people hitting the workforce now, in their 20s and 30s, with crippling debt, a lingering pandemic, and the hottest temperatures in recorded history, have the same inner fallout when they can’t find work.  I wonder whether they even want to work the way I have, the way I still work?  Do they doubt themselves, even after decades of professional experience?  Do the former English majors sometimes reach a point where they swear they’re giving up the thankless writing life (because, let’s face it, the last thing the world needs is another writer) but find themselves coming back to it again and again like an addiction?

I have no doubt that some of them will come around to my way of thinking while cutting banana trees and flirting with heat stroke: maybe what the world needs is not what I need.  Maybe a writer’s job is not to be respectable and flush, but to write and avoid getting flushed. Maybe no matter how many trees I prune, I know I’ll be heading back to the writing desk sooner or later, dental plan or not.  If not today, then tomorrow.  If not tomorrow, then next week.  If not next week, then never.  Because in this game, there is no victory scenario, no rest, no stopping until they put me in the ground.

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I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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“To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.”

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

“I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.”

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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“If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.”

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

“La lecture est un acte d’identification, les sentiments exprimés sont déjà en nous. Autrement, le livre nous tombe des mains.”

— Madeleine Chapsal

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection. King Solomon’s ring bore the inscription, ‘All will pass’; by contrast, I want to draw attention to how time in its moral implication is in fact turned back. Time can vanish without trace in our material world for it is a subjective, spiritual category. The time we have lived settles in our soul as an experience placed within time.”

— Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time