The New American Dream

The reality of being a writer in the US

I feel sorry for all of us.

I’ve edited several pieces for others, and most of them are garbage. Looking back at my work, most of it is garbage, and that’s including the stories and articles I felt were worth publishing at the time. Below them is a mountain of crap — stuff so bad that even at my most delusional, I knew it wasn’t worth continuing.

Every time I give up on a novel I’m writing, I feel relieved. It’s just too much pressure, and after 20 or so pages, I usually know that it just isn’t going to work. It’s like giving CPR to a man who’s been dead for three days, but I struggle on for another 20 or 30 pages anyway, hoping I’ll figure it out while knowing I won’t, before finally admitting it’s over.

The only books I’ve finished writing I’ve felt compelled to, either because I needed to know it was still possible, or because the story was decent and just kind of wrote itself. The dream was to earn enough to quit my job, but the truth is that it doesn’t matter.

Unless I literally make at least five million dollars, I won’t be able to quit with any sense of security. Even if my writing is earning over 100k a year, I’d be better off working at a McDonalds in Canada for minimum wage because at any moment, I could have a heart attack or get hit by a bus, and without my job’s health insurance, I’d be completely wiped out.

If I cashed out now, I could theoretically move to Tonga or Costa Rica and live comfortably for at least 20 years without having to worry about money, but in reality, I’d stay in NY and blow through it within a year. I’ve lived in the city for too long to function anywhere else.

I never used to worry about my health or health insurance, even after breaking my ankle and paying a small fortune to have it repaired. What finally got to me was my dad’s last stay at the hospital. He’d had a minor stroke, and was there for five days. The bill was over 100k. Without my mom’s health insurance, which comes with her pension because she worked for the state, my parents would have had to take out a second mortgage on their apartment. Two old people, who should be relaxing and enjoying their twilight years, would either have to find work or be booted out into the street, all because of a relatively minor medical problem.

For 99% of us, the days of being able to retire are over unless we win the lottery. You can work hard and save your entire life and one trip to the emergency room could leave you in financial ruin.

As my two or three regular readers know, this has been an insane work year for me. I typically work everyday, 70–80 hours a week, and again, this has been going on now for over a year.

My job is stressful and meticulous. For months, I’ve been fantasizing about earning enough from writing to quit until this piece by Jessica Wildfire brought me back to reality.

The revised dream is to pay off my mortgage as quickly as possible, so I can quit my job to become a janitor. The pay wouldn’t be as good, but as long as I still had health insurance, it’d be perfect. I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, the hours would be be better, and most importantly, I would never have to do my current job (proofreading) again. Some people don’t like mopping up empty buildings at night, but I find it almost meditative. I’ve done it before as a waiter closing up at night.

If you’re a writer, this is the new American Dream. Suffer 20 years to buy a cheap place and pay it off, so you can lower your monthly expenses enough to take the least stressful job that still provides health insurance. I can live with a dead-end job, as long as it isn’t killing me.

My ultimate goal was to come full circle and end my working life as a paperboy, the same way I started it, but men with vans have taken over the remaining paper routes, and I can barely drive. And paperboys don’t get health insurance, so janitor it is.

Once I’m a janitor, I’ll finally be free to make $30 to $50 a month writing whatever I want, whenever I want, with lots of napping and reading in between. Most of it will still be crap, but again, it won’t matter, as long as I have my sweet gig cleaning toilets and don’t have to worry about health insurance.

Writer, Recently Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Click here for books:

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