Debt: A Writer's Life

This is the bravest thing I've read for a long, long time.  For a reporter--an economic reporter--to admit that he's been in the hell of excess debt and unpaid bills that he reports on is a major statement in middle class America.  There was a time when America tolerated a certain amount of this in its writers--one reads nearly approvingly of the repeated flirtations with bankruptcy undertaken by the likes of Dorothy Parker or F. Scott Fitzgerald.  But these days, their profligacy, like their alcoholism, is no longer admired, or even tolerated, in the editorial world.

Yet writers are, as a class, extraordinarily at risk.  They spend their twenties, and often their thirties, living paycheck to paycheck.  They are extremely well educated, and all that education is not only expensive, but builds expensive habits.  You end up with a lot of friends who make much more money than you--who don't even realize that a dinner with $10 entrees and a bottle of wine is an expensive treat, not a cheap outing to catch up on old times.  Our business is in crisis, and we lose jobs often.  When we do, it's catastrophic.

This is what David Brooks calls "status-income disequilibrium", and unless you are among that happy breed of writers who is married to someone with a high-paying job, or who has a trust fund, you feel it keenly.  Everyone you write about makes more than you.  Most of the people you know make more than you.  And you come to feel that shopping at the farmer's market, travelling to Europe, drinking good coffee, are minimum necessities.  Your house is small, your furniture is shabby, and you can't even really afford to shop at Whole Foods.  Yet you're at the top of your field, working for one of the world's top media outlets.  This can't be so.

And so the debts creep up, one happy hour or Colorado backpacking adventure at a time.  They are confessed in moments of panic:  the 420 credit score that requires a cosigner on a new lease, the $10,000 in credit card debt, the car loan that can't be paid off nor recouped in a sale of the sadly depreciated vehicle, the deliberately bounced checks and collection calls.

But those are among friends.  Hanging it out there for the world to see is something entirely different.  We're the children of the middle class.  And ever more, a clean credit report, a good FICO score, are the standards of a life well lived.

I don't mean to moan about how terribly hard it is to be a writer.  Being a writer is great.  It's the best job I've ever had, and it's only by a most unlikely chain of coincidences that I get to do it, so I'm well aware of just how lucky I am.  All the writers I know could be doing something else more lucrative, but they like being writers, so they're willing to bear the risk.

Rather, I'm glad that Andrews is saying this because we could all use an object lesson.  Trying to live as if we aren't, well, writers, can be disastrous--indeed often is, except that the disasters are carefully hidden by people terrified of seeming to drop out of the middle class. The biggest prophylactic against getting into this sort of trouble is cultivating a notion of the good life that allows most writers to live within their means.  This should be easy to do, because most writers are friends with other writers.  And yet, so many of us get into trouble.  And yet even in a milieu now filled with people getting laid off by closing or shrinking outlets, there's visible discomfort when I state something that to me is obvious, unembarrassing, and uncontroversial:  that until Peter finds a job, there are a lot of things our household can't afford to do.

Until we're comfortable with talking publicly about the fact that we don't make much money and likely never will, that our lives are risky, and that this has obvious impacts on our ability to consume on the level of our educational peers, writers will keep getting into trouble.  Bravo to Andrews for leaning into the strike zone and taking one for the team.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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