Friday, March 4, 2011

Starving in a garret

Young woman reading in an attic bedroom by Alice Squire (1840-1936)
I have made a few stupid decisions in my life, and almost all of them have been financial. By the time I was 26, I had a well-paid job and I owned my own flat in North London. Now I am twice that age and live from check to check and in a rented house that is crumbling around my ears.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. No one but myself is responsible for my choices. And to give myself some credit many of my choices have been fabulous. Coming to live in the US and marrying my husband, to name but two. But like many writers, money has always been my Achilles heel. Can’t live with it, can’t seem to live without it.
In my experience, living with it requires waking up every morning and spending a minimum of eight hours working for someone else, often doing something that is at best boring and at worst exhausting and deeply uncongenial. Living without it means being freer to spend one’s time doing the important things in life, including writing down the many stories that are teeming in my brain. But it also involves lying awake at night staring at the ceiling with a sick feeling in the pit of your stomach because you’ve no idea how next month’s bills are going to get paid.
Most of the time, I exist somewhere between those two extremes but for many years my life has been situated more towards the latter end of the spectrum than the former. As any freelancer knows, there is never any guarantee that a check will arrive at the end of the month. There is no safety net, no safe place to land. Every penny I make is spoken for before it ever reaches my bank account. Sometimes I yearn to be able to afford a nice house with high ceilings and clean new windows and fixtures. But then I know that would mean leaving this house which – shabby though it is – has character and is located on a nice street full of great neighbors.
Life is full of trade-offs. In my twenties, I was on an exciting and well-paid career path that fed my ambitious side but sapped every ounce of energy and creativity I had. If I had stayed on that path, who knows how prosperous I might have been by now. But when I said as much to my wise mother who had watched the toll that job took on me at the time, she said, “And you’d probably be an alcoholic too.” And it’s almost certain that I would never have written a word of fiction or had the time, energy, or inspiration to follow the trail of the amazing South Seas story I first discovered on a tombstone in Scotland. The road not taken isn’t worth regretting for very long. As Shakespeare said, “Poor and content is rich, and rich enough.”


  1. Well I've made my own decisions that were stupid financially but you only have one life so why waste it doing something that doesn't make you happy. We should be grateful we have choices, unlike probably that Victorian young lady.
    Jane x