It’s Not About the Money
By Chip Cheek
Friday is my last day on the Grub Street staff. I plan to go home that evening and cry myself to sleep, because this has been the best job I have ever had. Chris, Eve, Sonya, and Whitney, in addition to being people I love so much it is probably inappropriate, are the coolest, most generous human beings I have ever worked with. And it has been a joy working every day with our instructors and students, many of whom have become great friends. I love you all.
I was invited to say a couple of things about writing and work. I’m leaving the staff to spend more time with my writing. For money, I’ll be doing some freelance editing and some teaching. I’m working on a novel (predictably) and will hate myself if I don’t give it everything I can, even if it ends up failing, as it probably will. Success or failure is beside the point, anyway.
I have always had a full-time job, even while I was getting my MFA. It has seemed the prudent thing to do: keep a steady, reasonably well-paid job, so you can dedicate all your worrying to writing. It’s a good idea; Flaubert said something similar, although Flaubert didn’t have to worry about actually having a job. Also he took forever to write his books.
Over time, in this multitasking, productivity-obsessed day and age, as I have kept on writing and holding down full-time jobs, a couple of things have become clear to me. One is that spending a couple of hours here and there with my writing, wherever I can find them — even on the rare weeks when I can find them every day — is not even close to adequate. I need four or five hours, eight when I’m really cooking. (One of the best days of my writing life was when I wrote for seventeen hours straight.)
The second thing, which everyone knows, is that becoming a writer is not just a career but a whole way of living and thinking and communicating — a way of being — and at a certain point in your life, anything that competes with it or is incompatible with it is unacceptable.
People in other pursuits feel the same way, I’m sure. Warren Buffet is an investor to his core. But self-actualizing as an investor happens also to mean getting rich, so the issue lacks the urgency it does for a writer. For a writer, once you’ve crossed a certain point, it usually means walking away from money and security, from the structure of the office, from the promise of promotion. That this is not always the case doesn’t change the point; Atul Gawande’s life as a surgeon is inseparable from his life as a writer. Unlike that lucky guy, my writing life has always been in conflict with the ways I have found to make money, and it has continued to be so now, in what is otherwise a dream job.
This conflict is one reason why, if you were to make a graph of my paychecks over the past twelve years, they would describe a nice, downward slope. Maybe this is common in a pampered generation, but I will point out that my family has never, in my adult life, been able to support me financially. My father once asked me, “Do you hate money, baby?” And the answer is no, I love money, and I intend to make a lot of it someday. (Real estate? Marriage?) But the big decisions in my life have had less to do with money than with the more important question of what kind of life I want to lead. I don’t believe it’s a sign of pamperedness to be guided by such a thing.
There is rash, and there is bold. Rash is making a leap without any real sense of who you are or what you want. Rash is quitting your lucrative financial services job to complete your great sci-fi epic, even though you don’t know the first thing about writing fiction, beyond the creative writing class you took in high school and The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Volume II.
I try to be bold. Bold is knowing what you want and, having laid down the groundwork and acquired some sense of your limitations as well as your strengths, being willing to act on it, even if the consequences are painful.
Leaving the Grub Street staff is painful. I don’t know if it’s rash or bold yet, but it is definitely sad, also exciting, also the right thing to do.
But whatever: I’ll still be teaching here, so I’m not actually leaving at all, and there’s no reason to get dramatic about it.
Chip Cheek's stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Washington Square, Night Train, Quick Fiction, and Minnetonka Review, among other publications. His stories also appear in the current edition of the textbook What If: Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter (Longman, 2009), and Brevity and Echo: An Anthology of Short Short Stories (Rose Metal Press, 2006). He is the recipient of a St. Botolph Club Foundation Emerging Artist Award for 2011, as well as scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Writers' Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center. He is currently at work on a novel.See other articles by Chip Cheek