BY EMILY GOULD
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 $7,000.
During that $7,000 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-20s 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.
For many years I have been spending a lot of time on the Internet. In fact, I can’t really remember anything else I did in 2010. I tumbld, I tweeted, and I scrolled. This didn’t earn me any money but it felt like work. I justified my habits to myself in various ways. I was building my brand. Blogging was a creative act—even “curating” by reblogging someone else’s post was a creative act, if you squinted.
It was also the only creative thing I was doing. 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. Then I tried to write straightforward critical essays, but without that dose of “I” I’d reliably been able to inject before, they were dry and boring, and suddenly my lack of real expertise or research skills was glaring—I’d always been able to fudge it before, compensating with feelings and observations when facts weren’t at my fingertips. I started to feel like I’d been fired from the only job I’d ever been good at. In a way, I had. I knew I needed to train for another line of work, but I had no idea what it might be, or what form that training might take. Instead I deadened my anxiety and sadness with an unending litany of jokes and observations and news briefs and petty complaints: the real-time collective unconscious that’s reliably unspooling on Twitter, even as I type (with my computer’s Internet access disabled) these words.
Eventually I started writing in the third person as an exercise. “Maybe I’m writing a novel,” I thought at times, but this seemed far-fetched.
How could someone who had been so mistaken about the narrative structure of her own life hope to write a novel?
By summer 2012, I’d been working on the third-person exercise for two years, and it had become a novel, or part of one, but it somehow wasn’t getting longer or better. With the exception of yoga earnings and freelance assignments, I mostly lived on money I borrowed from my boyfriend, Keith. (We’d moved in together in fall 2010, in part because we liked each other and in larger part because I couldn’t afford to pay rent.) We kept track of what I owed him at first, but at some point we stopped writing down the amounts; it was clear the total was greater than I could hope to repay anytime soon. He paid off one credit card so that I wouldn’t have to keep paying the monthly penalty. When I wanted to cancel my health insurance he insisted I keep it, and paid for it. He was patient when my attempts to get a job more remunerative than teaching yoga failed; he didn’t call me out on how much harder I could have tried. Without questioning my choices, he supported me, emotionally, creatively, and financially. I hated that he had to. At times he was stretched thin financially himself and I knew that our precarious money situation weighed heavily on his mind, even though he never complained. “You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,” he said, over and over again.
But there was one thing he wouldn’t tolerate, and that was all the time I spent clicking and scrolling. He didn’t buy the line about it being a form of creativity. He called it an addiction. I said, “It soothes me.” He said, “It agitates you.” Being a blogger was a part of my identity I couldn’t relinquish, but I knew I would have to quit dispersing my energies if I hoped to finish my book and pay him back. I hatched a plan. Keith was going to the Arctic to report for an article, and before he left we made a deal: if I did the work of cleaning our apartment, finding a subletter for August, and finding a cheaper housing arrangement, I could keep the money we saved. I ended up renting a cottage upstate from an easygoing touring musician named Heather. Heather sent two blurry photos and I said yes, even though all I could tell from the photos was that the house had wood floors and a piano. I don’t play piano but it seemed like a nice thing to have. Keith wouldn’t be back till mid-August, so I would have two weeks there completely alone; my friend Bennett agreed to help me move in. I planned to stay off the Internet, except email. This seemed terrifying but perfect, the exact kind of bored loneliness that could force me to finish a draft of the book.
The house was located, as Bennett and I discovered, on a campground, whose—owner? manager?—Heather warned me about. She said he watched TV all day and night and was “a real character.” This detail came back to me as he waved a flashlight at us and glowered, his long, scraggly white beard flashing in the moonlight. He looked like a very specific character, the one who appears fifteen minutes into every horror movie about dumb city kids who drive into the country to party in an isolated cabin.
“Who are you?” he shouted.
“We’re… I’m staying in Heather’s house?” I said. “For August?”
“It’s over there,” the bad omen said, pointing to a saggy, vinyl-sided structure about 20 feet from the parking lot, facing the road. He shrugged and went back inside, trailing his stale-cig aroma. In my memory it was raining but it may not actually have been raining. We dragged what we needed for the night toward the door of what was apparently Heather’s house, and then I fumbled with the lock and we were inside.
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.
I regret the bottled water, I regret the cappuccinos, but mostly I regret not realizing that I needed to stop therapy sooner.
I think about the money I owe AmEx a lot, but I think about the ruined relationship with Dr. Susan (who was a great therapist) and the money I owe Keith every day.
I don’t regret spending thousands of dollars on my cat Raffles, though he has been a pricey liability for years now. He has been threatening to die on a regular basis since the summer of my twenty-second year, when my parents brought him to New York because he’d been getting beaten up all over their neighborhood by cats, dogs, and maybe raccoons, coming home with infected wounds, which became abscesses, which required surgery. It was clear how he got into these situations: he approaches everyone and everything with an open-hearted friendliness, head-butting legs and outstretched palms and furniture in ecstasies of delirious affection. It’s easy to imagine this not going over well with raccoons.
Raffles contracted feline immunodeficiency virus from the fights, but that latent condition would turn out to be the least of his woes. In 2007, he became diabetic, requiring insulin shots at precise twelve-hour intervals and expensive, foul-smelling prescription cat food. He recovered from the diabetes, but soon developed a host of other expensive conditions: dental problems to rival Martin Amis’s, thyroid and gastric disorders, mysterious and terrible fits of projectile vomiting. He became so finicky that after trying all the healthy cat food brands with their cutesy flavor names (“Thanksgiving Dinner”) I gave up and started feeding him Fancy Feast, feeling the way I imagine parents feel when they give in to their toddlers’ desires to eat mac and cheese for every meal—guilty and slightly relieved, because at least it’s cheap.
The most costly of Raff’s medical misfortunes wasn’t related to any of these chronic conditions. I’d been babysitting my friend’s dog, an elderly lab-mix mutt who took daily doses of arthritis medication, when I noticed Raffles wasn’t his usual needy, sociable self. Instead, he was sitting stockstill and open-eyed with pinned pupils. The vet confirmed my suspicion. “He’s stoned out of his little cat mind,” she said. “Could he have accidentally eaten any medication that was lying around?”
The dog must have spat out her dose. Raffles had his stomach pumped and stayed overnight in the veterinary ER, to the tune of $1,500 or so. They’d given me an estimate along these lines before they pumped his stomach, and I wondered if anyone ever said no. “Let my cat die. I can’t afford this.” Probably a lot of people did. Possibly I should have. Of course, I didn’t. This was when I was still living alone and paying $1,700 in rent every month, still thinking that because I had once been able to use writing to make the kind of money you can live on in New York, I would inevitably do so again.
Right before we went upstate, Raffles got an abdominal ultrasound ($380, charged to a nearly maxed-out credit card) that revealed he has lymphoma. I thought he wouldn’t survive the trip, but a year later it seems to be killing him very slowly; he’s thin but not in obvious pain, holding steady on $40-a month steroid pills.
“I’m afraid to leave you here,” Bennett told me Sunday night. He’d stayed for the weekend, settling me in, chauffeuring me to neighboring towns to stockpile food and supplies. Another friend would arrive on Friday, and Keith the Friday after that, so I wouldn’t be completely alone. But I would be alone a lot. I don’t know how to drive. There was a clunky old bike in the basement that could take me to Rosendale’s main street, but not the ten miles to Kingston or New Paltz. I would mostly be trapped in Heather’s small, slightly decrepit house, with no one around for miles but the campground-guarding troll and whatever vacationing serial killers were attracted to his campground.
For a certain kind of highly disciplined, possibly Swedish person, the day comes naturally segmented into task-length periods of productivity the way citrus fruit comes segmented into slices: waking, making breakfast, eating, working, exercising, making lunch, eating, working, reading, making dinner, eating, sleeping, all of these activities taking place at their assigned times, for their allotted increments. I decided to become this kind of person. I would rise at eight, eat, work for two hours, practice yoga, eat lunch, check email or work for another hour (OK, check email), go outside, eat dinner, go to bed. And mostly that is what I did. “I’ve been drinking a lot, but I think that’s actually OK,” I wrote in my notebook. I also wrote that I had been spending a lot of time petting Raffles, crying, and quietly saying “Don’t die,” and that it was nice to be able to do this unobserved.
When I first sat down to write this essay, I thought I would spend a lot of time describing the scenic beauty of the Shawangunk valley and the sense of deep stillness and isolation that surrounded me there, as contrasted with my everyday life, which mostly takes place in my apartment above a bar. But everyone has been to the country, everyone knows what that’s about. Trees, screaming cicadas, sweet-smelling air, routine doses of astonishing ordinary loveliness that exhilarate and revive you like a drug. The white spot that resolves into a bald eagle as you focus your binoculars. The precious sense of being just deliciously exhausted enough that your brain can’t create its usual whirl of thoughts. Et cetera.
A week and a half into my Rosendale month, I returned to the city to see the musical Into the Woods in Central Park. (I left my friend Sari with instructions about how to feed Raffles his steroid pills.) I hadn’t been off the bus long when I realized how much ten days away had affected me. The subway contained too many people, too much information: I looked around constantly, trying to figure out everyone’s deal. I stopped at the Strand to buy the fourth Game of Thrones book. Two girls around my age were hovering by the bestsellers table, leafing through Fifty Shades of Grey. “I hear it’s incredibly bad,” one of them said.
“It is. You can’t even imagine how bad. Worse, it’s boring. Bad and boring,” I said, though neither of them had even glanced in my direction. They exchanged bitch-is-crazy looks, but for some reason I continued. “Look, I’m reading these Game of Thrones books—I’m not a snob! But there’s trash and then there’s crap, and that’s crap.” The one who’d spoken said, not really to me, “Well, I want to find out for myself what all the fuss is about,” and picked it up and got in line. “OK, but don’t say no one warned you!” I called brightly after them. They walked away fast.
I didn’t feel good about how this went down, which might be why, on exiting the Strand, I made eye contact with a sunburned gentleman who was begging for change. “Please, Miss, help me get something to eat,” he said, an entreaty I’ve heard thousands of times and never once responded to. “OK,” I told him, “But I have to buy it for you so I know you’re getting food.” He eagerly accepted, and we walked to a kebab cart, where he placed a finicky, exacting order. After I’d paid for the kebab and waved away his thanks, he launched into a more complicated sob story, but I was already halfway down the steps into the Union Square subway station.
What, I thought, as I waited for the uptown 6, was that? I began to worry about being normal for my friend who’d landed us the highly coveted tickets. I liked this friend a lot but didn’t know her terribly well, despite which I had sort of invited myself to spend the night at her house. I didn’t want to alienate her by crying or acting strange or giving money to homeless people.
Into the Woods is a clever, appealing show—appealing to me, anyway—because it’s not afraid to be completely obvious. “Going into the woods” is the beginning of everyone’s story, and “the woods” are wherever your story begins. While you’re there, you encounter monsters and beautiful maidens and princes. Then you get what you want, and find out it’s nothing like what you imagined. The monsters turn out to be cool, the maidens to be weird losers, the princes to be dicks.
You lose everything you have that can be lost, and find out who you are when you have to live without it.
In the first act, the characters—standard storybook types like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack of beanstalk fame—go through the motions of the stories we know, overcoming obstacles we know they’ll encounter and accomplishing goals they’d announced at the show’s outset. But in act 2, which reviewers tend to think is a mess, the curtain rises on a post–“ever after” world that no one, especially not the characters, has ever imagined. There’s betrayal and poverty and failure. There’s also plenty of death, because that’s the foremost thing no one imagines will be part of his story.
When the closing song (“No One Is Alone”) came I teared up, as I’d feared, but didn’t humiliate myself by sobbing. We made our way back to my friend’s apartment without incident, and I surprised myself by falling asleep almost instantly. We woke up early and rode the subway together to 42nd and Eighth. My friend headed toward her impressive glass office building and I went down into the bowels of Port Authority, where I boarded a bus for my temporary home.
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: “OK, say I’m a voice of my generation.”
Imagine me three years later, watching the premiere of Girls for free on YouTube and reaching the scene in which Lena Dunham, whose character is writing a book of autobiographical essays and trying to convince her parents that she needs to stay on the teat to finish it. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” Dunham says, bravely and unconvincingly, and then amends herself: “or at least a voice of a generation.” It’s a great scene, the elevator pitch for the whole groundbreaking show. She turned her life into art—award-winning, apartment-buying, wildly popular art—which is something I’m still trying to do. Watching her do it has been excruciating. That could have been me, I catch myself thinking, but of course it couldn’t have been, or at least it isn’t.
Dunham isn’t the only person living the life I’d once felt entitled to. Or maybe the problem—well, a problem—was that I felt entitled to several different lives. In one of these lives, my book has made me famous as a pundit and wit, the kind of person who’s constantly consulted on everything from what feminists should be enraged about to what jeans to buy. This person writes a great book every few years and travels and whips up impressionistic little essays for classy magazines when she feels like it, not because she has to. She’s single, or maybe she has a glamorous artist boyfriend. She is beautiful, but not professionally beautiful—beautiful like a French person. Like Charlotte Gainsbourg.
In another of these lives, my writing has given me the wherewithal to live within a bourgeois coziness I’ve fantasized about for years (my feminist, socialist education making me feel guilty all the while). In this fantasy I’m married to my true love Keith, we own a brownstone and my books pay the mortgage, we have children, and I write novels while they’re at school and cook delicious meals every night and the importance of the world’s approval recedes into insignificance because I have the much more solid and gratifying love of my family. But I still have it—the approval. Of course. Like Jennifer Egan (though I don’t know if she cooks). Like Laurie Colwin, but not dead.
The ridiculousness of wanting to have a baby when you’re struggling to afford to feed your cat (and yourself) notwithstanding, I nevertheless felt terrible about turning 30 without having had a baby. Unfortunately this feeling was becoming increasingly unignorable at around the exact same time that Keith admitted to me that he’d donated sperm to his lesbian sister’s partner, and she was now pregnant. I knew I had no right to be as livid as I was, but I was livid and could think of nothing else for days that became weeks. I caught myself wishing everyone involved into nonexistence, especially myself.
“Just write your way out of it,” someone once told me. This is terrible advice, as I confirmed when I tried to write my way out of my brokeness and toxic feelings about Keith’s gestating biological son/nephew by agreeing to describe the situation, under a pseudonym, for a women’s magazine. This meant trying to shape my irrational, evil feelings into an essay featuring a “me” character who is sane, likeable, and relatable, and to make events that were still happening into a story with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. It soon became apparent that the only way to do this was to pretend Keith’s revelation about the baby had forced a painful but necessary reckoning that would lead, I implied, to increased trust, closeness, and understanding in our relationship. The editors at the women’s magazine wouldn’t let the story alone until it suggested that, as a result of Keith’s weird quasi-betrayal, we had sorted through our issues and were now on the verge of getting married and having our own children.
This couldn’t have been further from the truth, and while I didn’t exactly want it to be true at that particular moment, it was still painful to borrow those feelings in order to try to write as though they were mine. I worked on the essay for six months, which included several all-day email volleys from the editor, who seemed constantly ready to kill the piece. I couldn’t let that happen; I needed the money so badly.
I was incredibly relieved when the issue finally closed. Around the same time, the baby was born. I tortured myself by looking at photos of him on Facebook. He was beautiful and healthy, and even as a tiny infant he smiled constantly. He looked a lot like Keith. The money, meanwhile, disappeared into the maw of my debt without making a discernible dent in it, or any palpable difference in my everyday life.
Two weeks into my Rosendale trip I’d discovered a secret I wished I could share with the world, but it was hard to share it without sounding like the worst kind of judgmental asshole.
It was miraculous, I wanted to shout into the wind, how much space opened up in your brain when you stopped filling it with a steady stream of other people’s thoughts!
Twitter and Tumblr and even email—anything that rewards constant vigilance and creates repetitive cycles of need based on intermittent reinforcement—were the bitterest foes of the sustained concentration that’s necessary to making worthwhile art! DUH! How had I been so blind?! How had I lived such a debased life for so long? How would I ever go back to New York? I was determined to preserve my monastic habits when I left Rosendale, for as long as I lived.
When Keith joined me at the cabin I was happy to see him, but I also worried that he would jeopardize my weird solitude and the blithe, happy creativity I’d begun to cultivate. Just having to talk to another person on a regular basis could enable a worm of self-doubt to slither into my Edenic lifestyle. In other words: having him around could lead me to realize everything I’d been writing was terrible. (When I got back to New York, I did realize a lot of it was terrible, but that didn’t matter: the draft existed, and so could be revised into not-terribleness.) Anyway, I greeted him by being a huge territorial bitch. Luckily Keith is so oblivious when he’s writing an article that he barely noticed. He buried himself in a pile of books about the Arctic and generally made himself inconspicuous. Soon we were back to the patterns of happy coworking we’ve been cultivating for years, sharing time in Heather’s orange-painted office in the mornings and going for hikes in the afternoons. Also it was nice to have regular access to a car.
Then one afternoon he told me that his sister and her partner and all their children, plus his young half-brothers, would be coming through New York State on the last leg of a cross-country road trip. Could they crash with us for a night?
I said no. I was rude about it, too. I accused Keith of “always putting her needs before mine,” which in fact he has only ever done once (the baby). He pretended to agree with me and gently brought me around by reminding me how much I love his sister’s older kids and his half-brothers, and how rare it is for us to see them, and how special it would be for the kids to camp out on our floor. I finally gave in, then spent the day before their arrival dreading the moment when I’d first see the baby. What if I burst out crying or otherwise embarrassed myself? What if they wanted me to hold him? I didn’t think I could handle it.
That afternoon Raffles pooped outside his litter box, then dragged his butt across the bathroom and living room, smearing poop everywhere. The vet had warned me that the cancer was affecting his intestines, but this was the first evidence I’d seen. The cleanup was disgusting, and the worst part was that I had to pick Raffles up and wash his butt. He whined, clearly hating this affront to his dignity, but he didn’t try to escape. Either he saw the necessity of what I was doing or he lacked the energy to fight. Either way it seemed like a bad sign. When it’s time, I hope he dies in his sleep, both for his own sake and because I can’t afford the final few hundred dollars that euthanization costs.
The next day, I held my breath as the car arrived. The kids piled out, rambunctious from being cooped up, and I was too busy greeting them to worry about what seeing the baby would be like, and soon it had happened without my really noticing. We went into the little house and busied our selves making sleeping-bag beds on the floor. The baby passed around from kid to kid, and then I was holding him.
I registered his adorableness and shocking docility. I didn’t feel a gutpunch or an ovary-twinge or a heartbreaking tightness in my chest. No part of my torso or spirit ached. I felt nothing, but that “nothing” wasn’t numbness, it was just… nothing. Seeing this child with his parents—and those two women, not Keith, were unquestionably his parents—undid my possessive, paranoid fantasies in an instant. I didn’t even look for his resemblance to Keith. The problem with the dumb article I’d written, besides being full of made-up feelings and lies, was that I was wrong to think I was that story’s protagonist. I am this story’s protagonist, but I was also wrong to assume, three years ago, that my story would move predictably toward its perfect happy ending.
I don’t know if I will ever have any of the things I once considered necessary and automatic parts of a complete adult life. I might never get married, or have children, or own a home. I will pay back the money I owe Keith, though, and my novel will be published—I sold it that December, for $30,000. In January 2013, I began a full-time job that, while it leaves me no time to write, is helping me slowly repay the debts I incurred by imagining that writing was my livelihood. Act 1 is over—it’s been over for a while—and I’m headed back into the woods.