Writing, Budgeting, and Shame

My primary activity at the moment is not doing things, which is not conducive to exciting bloggery. For example, I’m not succumbing to the temptation to renew my Locus subscription; I’m not rushing out to buy the passel of books I really want to buy; I’m not going on online shopping sprees to celebrating the moment of parity between the Australian dollar and the US*. In fact, I’m not really leaving the house much for anything, really.

All of this takes considerable mental energy on my part, because the impulse is there to do all of them and in some cases (say, Locus) I can even partially justify why I should do them. Such are the realities of paying off credit card debt in my current circumstances – I’ve trimmed my budget to focus as much as possible on paying off the accumulated debt of the last year, and even then the realities of credit interest meant I’m only dropping the debt by $5-$20 a month. Eventually that will change – the payments will knock down the debt, the not-using-the-credit-card will keep new debt from accumulating, and thus there will be less interest as the months go by – but that day is a ways off . At the moment the best option available to me is getting used to not doing things, even if it’s hard and depressing and largely un-fun.

So the question becomes: why am I blogging about this? Well, call it a lesson in the psychology of being a writer (or, at least, this writer).

Like most people, I’m not actually terrible with money. I’m not great with it, but my bills get paid and my rent goes in on time and I’m rarely without food. Between post-graduate studies, a tendency towards casual employment, and a focus on writing as a long-term career, I’ve gotten used to living on not a lot of money. Most days I’m okay with the trade-off between earning much less in order to do the one thing that I’m really good at doing in the hopes it’ll pay off in the long run. And until about five years ago, I either avoided my credit card like the goddamn plague or kept it paid off when it was seeing regular use.

But, like most people, there were gaps in my budget that leaked cash like a sieve, and when I stopped doing sessional lecturing gigs a few years back the outlet for those became the credit card.

My first budgeting blind-spot largely came down to purchases justified under the aegis that I “needed them for writing.” Stuff like printer ink cartridges would get charged to the card on the weeks that I didn’t have the ready cash for them, or I’d look at a magazine like Locus and rationalise the subscription. Or I’d celebrate a story sale by hitting the bookstore, working off the theory that I’d pay things back when the cheque came in, and somehow never did. Yes, this is thoroughly stupid, but I suspect many people are stupid with their credit cards in much the same way.

And, honestly, it’s far less stupid than my second blind-spot. ‘Cause my second blind-spot is largely summed up as “shame.”

There are hundreds of small purchases on my credit cards that were primarily driven by shame:  petrol for the car so I could make it to social events without saying “sorry, I’m broke;
last-minute grocery shopping for when people where coming around so they weren’t exposed to my regular diet of hot-dogs and baked beans; pizza on those nights when the writing seemed hopeless and my life wasted and the only defense against the lingering spectre of shame was spending money on the simplest of luxuries. Birthday presents I wouldn’t have been able to afford under ordinary circumstances. Christmas. Meeting people for coffee. Simple things, ordinary things, that I just couldn’t bring myself to admit weren’t in the budget. It was rarely a lot of money, only ten dollars here and twenty dollars there, but it quickly added up.

And to be fair, this probably wasn’t needed – my friends and family have always been pretty good about understanding when I say “the money’s not there.”  The problem largely came down to me. Doing those things were a way of bolstering my self-esteem rather than taking the hit of saying “I don’t have the cash”, and it was a way of warding off the sinking feeling that maybe I just wasn’t good enough to do better. For years I warded off that feeling with the excuse of “post-graduate study”, but when I left the degree behind a few years back I no longer had that defense, and thus the credit card stepped in to pick up the slack.

I may well be alone in this, but I suspect this is the real danger when budgeting as an aspiring writer without a full-time day job: it’s hard to keep your eyes on the future and accept that you’re doing without now, especially if you’ve been doing without for a while . Writing is one of those careers that doesn’t have immediate payoffs, may never have a payoff at all, and doesn’t get a hell of a lot of respect in ordinary society. When you pick writing and you aren’t making a success of it, odds are there’s going to be a moment of shame somewhere in your future – the culture virtually demands it. You’ll feel it in your gut the first time you tell someone “I’m a writer” and they respond with the handful of usual response that statement gets. It’s one of the best reasons I can think of to listen to writing books when they say stuff like “don’t give up your day job.”  Hell, it’s the reason why I was much more productive when I had a damn day job and I really miss having one. It’s much easier to be proud of your work when you’re not wishing it’d earned you the discretionary cash to buy a new book, meet a friend for coffee, or afford a McDonald’s burger.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I was so interested in blogging this budgeting/credit card process, and it largely came down to the idea of writing without a net (ie, putting my process out there, warts and all) and a desire to just admit to the shame so I could stop worrying about it so much (cause, honestly, I don’t see it going away). A writer far smarter and more successful than I (probably John Scalzi) once blogged that writing is a career for people who enjoy being in a constant state of panic. I think that’s probably true, but it’s a mistake to think that all the panic is going to come from deadlines and late cheques and wondering how you’re going to pay your rent next week. Slowly, inevitably, some of that panic’s going to come from not moving as fast as you want to be, and some of it’s going to come from fear of failure, and some of it’s going to come from the thought that “maybe this is as good as I’m ever going to be.”

And based on my conversations with people who are further along the food chain than I am, I’m not sure that ever goes away. Somehow you have to figure out how to handle it and keep writing anyway.

  1 comment for “Writing, Budgeting, and Shame

  1. Pingback: Ramblings of a wRiter | October/November 2010 Australian Spec Fic carnival

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