We don’t talk about money enough and I’ll start: I’m broke. Currently I have 22 voicemails about student loans and I have no plans to return the calls. Recently I learned that the olive oil I use to sauté on-sale vegetables is probably not real olive oil, and I am not going to do anything about it because real olive oil is expensive. My “savings” account is overdrawn. Negative savings! I get checks and spend them. Because I have anxiety about being broke and not doing anything about it, I am medium-to-low good at taking care of myself. I don’t want to be one of those women who’s bad with money. I don’t want to be one of those women artists who doesn’t have time to make art. I don’t want to be one of those Black women who works and works and works and dies. Like my mother. Like my grandmother.
I’m an “artist,” which means I want to be paid (money) for having cool ideas and making a more interesting world. When I wake up, I have fantasies about doing whatever. I’m not lazy, I just understand the relationship between time and money. I am very low on money, so I am very low on time. I’m always late. I miss deadlines even though I don’t think of myself as a person who misses deadlines. I have approximately six jobs. My friends and my mom say I am “overextended” and wonder about the psychology around my impulse to “do too much.” It is very simple. It is the psychology of the poor.
The psychology of the poor is reading menus at beer gardens to compare alcohol-by-volume percentages with price. The psychology of the poor is saying yes to every “small compensation.” The psychology of the poor is knowing a lot about the best happy hours and gallery openings with snacks. The psychology of the poor is leaving work to go to work.
On Sundays and Tuesdays, respectively, I sit down with the cheapest glass of wine available and watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. These are television shows about women whose jobs either consist of or allow for lunching and private yoga lessons. Oh, to make lunch a verb! I pine. I think I would be very good at this job, wherein men are seldomly seen, vacations are often, manicures are often, and personal ventures are celebrated with parties and signature cocktails. I watch these shows while I simultaneously write, edit work for literary magazines, edit my own work, plan course syllabi, grade student work, apply for grants and residencies, submit work for publication, do interviews, plan readings, book readings, and send apologetic overdue emails to editors. I have too many jobs to have a job. I pine to fill my days like a housewife with what I instead necessarily aim to anxiously accomplish in the two hours between dinner and bed.
I have too many jobs to have a job, and the problem is these jobs don’t pay. A contributor’s cut here and there won’t lift me from the debt incurred by my fancy MFA degree. This year, poets Dena Rash Guzman and Jessica Piazza are drawing attention to our dreadfully undervalued work by submitting only to literary journals who pay. This is one push toward progress. But as an editor and anonprofit arts administrator, I know that organizations struggle as much as the artists they promote. The system’s broken, and that’s society’s fault. Big, bad, mean society with its paper money everywhere, its bills and debts, its ever-rising rents. We—artists, editors, administrators, activists—are trying to change the landscape of representation, accountability, and economic stability. But we’re busy: we have jobs. We have bills. I think about my grandmother, a single mother of six who spent her days cleaning a white family’s house, cooking their meals, doing their laundry, raising their children. Then she went home and did it again. My inheritance: the psychology of work. The Strong Black Woman. The psychology of struggle.
I am looking for a rich husband and here is the plan: I’ll do my thing all day, sip wine, cook elaborate meals, and sometimes talk to him when he gets home. Essentially he’ll be a patron of the arts. Because women are paid 78% what men make, and even less than that for women of color (and for women poets of color… well, take a guess), maybe this way, I can finally be comfortable. Sex and love? Optional, whatever, I’m open to arrangements. I like to cook. If he’s into that sort of heteronormative thing, dinner will be my one feminist concession. But oh! To make lunch a verb! Oh, to write, to follow through with my commitments, to be on time without dodging anonymous calls about debt, without eating every paycheck within days, without leaving work to go home and do other work, without waking at 3:30 am with emails on my mind. I have so many cool ideas, I swear. I swear, had I time and money enough, I could be a kind of Oprah. But I don’t, so I’m not.
The psychology of the struggle is romantic. It is my grandmother, saintly in her indestructibility. It is my college application essay on yearning for the writer’s life of rice dinners on a cold wood floor. It is the never deserving more. It is a privileged myth of anti-capitalist integrity. I would love to not care about money, but here I am, in #StruggleCity, isn’t that cute? Isn’t pain moral?
In a recent article for Salon, “‘Sponsored’ by my Husband,” writer Ann Bauer talks about how her husband’s cushy salary is the only thing allowing her to be a full-time artist. “I completed my third novel in eight months flat,” she says, and I’m like, sign me up. As a feminist who in all ways and all relationships works to buck traditional, heteronormative expectations of what a woman should and should not be, I wonder, of course, how I can do two things at once: live the housewife dream as well as the dream of being a formidable feminist Boss. Does one undercut the other or allow for it, or both, or do and should either exist? Most discussions of feminist economics don’t include enough consideration of the challenges facing artists: namely, the lack of time to make art, the romanticized struggle. I do not want to exist only for a man, but goddamn do I want to exist, and exist well. Which is more feminist: attempting to use the patriarchal family structure and the marriage industrial complex to my advantage as an artist, or subsisting on my own strength and hustle? Is seeking an arrangement wherein a man sustains me while I achieve maximum success and freedom the most feminist thing ever, or just a cliché admission of my reliance on capitalist patriarchy? Are we only feminists if we struggle? Are we only feminists if we are alone? Can I at once work to break down a heteronormative capitalist system while reaping its benefits: money, time, freedom, leisure, and peace of mind?
This week one of the Housewives of Beverly Hills says “my husband likes it when,” and I don’t want to be one of those women. On Sunday I wake up with nowhere to go and a to-do list that makes up three post-its. I make coffee. I put on a soup for dinner. I do whatever, and I want to be one of those women. Men, I’ll be transparent: I am trying to use you for your 22% bigger paycheck. Maybe you’re actually kind of cool in addition to being rich enough to support my full-time writer life, and we can kick it sometimes. The psychology of struggle is as played out as the starving artist trope, as played out as the impenetrable and unlovable Strong Black Woman. Bring on the Carefree Black Girl, The Feminist “Housewife,” The Successful Artist. My dream is to talk more about money and the structures and arrangements that allow women artists to sustain their work. My dream is to reinvent what stability looks like, to get creative, to dare to want a better quality of life.