The Economics

by Jeff Oaks

One thing I’ve always been suspicious of in the journals of writers is the lack of discussion of their economic lives. If there’s one thing that weighs on the minds of my writer-friends, it’s money, the lack of it, the arranging and corralling and spending of it. For me, it is one of the great mysteries in their memoirs, journals, and letters. There’s of course Thoreau’s totalling up his expenditures, but most of us suspect that he had help from other literary types to make ends meet. I remember teaching May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude in my Writer’s Journals class, and students, who had no sense of who she was as an fiction writer or poet, kept asking where the money for her elaborately described gardens came from. Why does she never talk about the economics of that solitude? I think they’re right to be suspicious of anyone who can’t talk about that. They’re been raised to be mindful of the ways that wealth is supported by other people’s labor. There’s a fantastic essay by EB White in One Man’s Meat that actually tries to make an accounting of the “Nothing” that Bette Davis in Dark Victory ends up embracing, after losing her socialite life and her sight due to a brain tumor and moving to Vermont. It’s hardly nothing, needless to say. It’s one of the finest movie critiques ever.

Thinking about money was always my mother’s job when I was a kid. She was the one who scrimped and saved, protected and labored over. My father spent it like water–gambled away huge amounts of it, thousands and thousands on horses, lottery tickets, and god knows what else. He died penniless, dependent on the state. In our binary system then, spending money was immoral and saving it was a discipline that built character and spawned inventive solutions to everything. We were not poor, but then those were the days of gas so cheap you could buy gallons with coins.

One of the things I like to tell my students is that when I feel blocked as a writer, the first thing I do is to do an an accounting of my finances. What’s in the bank now? What do I know I have to spend out of that? What will I have left? What can I spend money on that’s outside of the essentials? A new coat? A couple of new sweaters? Once I establish the financial facts of my life, some part of my mind relaxes and lets the other parts of my imagination that aren’t so catastrophic get a word or two in.

For years after grad school, I lived on part-time work–teaching two classes (and luckily getting health care with that!), working at a coffeehouse, at Barnes and Noble, as a temp. I taught in a maximum security prison. I taught at an all-girls school, I taught anywhere I could find a need. For the first five years I lived on less than a thousand dollars a month, thanks to a series of cheap apartments, sometimes with lovers, sometimes alone. I didn’t have a car. I did have a bike. I took the bus when I couldn’t bike. I didn’t eat very well, but it wasn’t terrible as I remember it now. I never went without in any serious way. Once, when I was dead broke, a wealthy friend paid my rent for a month. And I knew if I really was in danger, my mother would find the money to help, although, because at that time she had just divorced my father, left her job as a secretary, and moved to Alabama where her one friend in the world lived, and remade herself as a house cleaner, I didn’t think it was ethical of me to ask too much of her. I had friends I met with in writing groups, so I kept writing. Or rather, we kept ourselves writing. It was who we were, since we weren’t anything else yet. There were many months when I had only a few dollars in my bank account at the end of the month.

I couldn’t do that now. I have a house, which has big costs. About a half of my paycheck goes into mortgage (which I have to remember to write rather than “rent”), gas, electric, water, phone, internet, groceries, and dog food. Thanks to Netflix and the internet, I don’t have cable. Thanks to my cellphone, I don’t have a landline. Then there’s the car payment and gas and parking. That’s a big chunk. This year, because I’ve been travelling quite a bit back and forth to visit my mother who’s been ill, there are credit cards which I have to be careful to watch. She and my brother, who makes good money, have been very generous in covering a lot of the expenses, but there’s still the ancillary ones–kennelling the dog most especially–that have added up.

I still take other jobs to cover these extra expenses–working as a reader for a press, teaching to adult learners, occasionally doing reading gigs. Last year, because of those extra jobs, I actually managed to end the year with zero credit card debt.

I’m also aware that I probably couldn’t do this if I had children. My dog costs enough, thank you. I would rather go without the car than the dog frankly. If I didn’t live in a section of Pittsburgh that is surrounded by hills, there’s a good chance I would get rid of the car. Next year, in fact, I’m going to experiment on a schedule that will allow me to use the bus more. It won’t lessen the car payment, but it will definitely lessen the parking and gas costs.

I’m still working out the economics of the new full-time life I have. I’m always aware I could be fired at any time, which keeps me from overspending generally. But then along comes a big need–my house had to have new fascia and some problems had to be fixed–and there goes my savings and I’m right back at being one catastrophe away from a selling the house.

I like to remind my mother that she told me that I would be locked up if I ever bounced a check. That kept me careful for a long time. When I did finally bounce one, I was almost happy to pay the extra fees rather than go to prison.

On the other hand, she gave me a great gift: anxiety about money doesn’t really impinge on my writing time that much. I know other friends who have enormous loans that never leave them alone. I’m not sure I’d be able to write in that case, but they do. I hope that a new relationship between creativity and money/debt might come out of their work. I remember when I was an undergraduate that only rich writers seemed to have made it–doctors like Williams or trust fund kids like Lowell or Bishop or Merrill or celibates like Marianne Moore or ones who sucked up (to my mind then) to rich patrons like HD or Pound. Now the idea is that you get a university job I suppose. I wonder how the new generation will reimagine the possible economics between art and basic needs. I hope they publish it, so we all might learn something.