Photo: Messy Cupcakes

Additions and Subtractions

I’ve tried a lot of different subtractions over the years: selling my plasma, going without health insurance, living in a house in the woods with no indoor plumbing, eating a lot of peanut butter, not owning a car. I did these things happily, as experiments that could give me more of what I wanted: time to write, travel, and work on creative projects. I’ve never made much money, so subtractions have always been necessary – necessary in the sense that I chose a creative life and made the decision not to pursue money as a specific goal.

I remember sitting in the waiting room surrounded by worn bodies as they shifted and rearranged their weight in the Kentucky humidity. I waited and observed the flesh peeking – sometimes flowing – out of the gaps between shirts and pants. Tired, cracked feet rested in worn flip-flops. My eyes registered the tattoos, the stretched and faded constellations of lines. Scars – I read them like stories, inventing lives as I waited to sell a small amount of myself. Before taking my plasma, the nurse made me remove my socks; then she pried open my toes one by one.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Looking for needle tracks.”

I felt light-headed.

“Are you a regular drug user? Do you have AIDS? Do you have multiple partners? Do you have sex with men and women?”

I felt violated by the questions.

Even before I made it to the stretcher and watched the red-black blood flow out of my body and down a tube that separated it into straw-colored plasma, the weight of the transaction made me feel like I was drowning. What was gained by literally selling an element of my physical self? $40 and the awareness that money measures the worth of very few things.

In terms of additions, there were many. I traveled with abandon, studied Vietnamese, ate durians, became a diver, hitchhiked around Lake Titicaca, volunteered freely, and wrote daily. Over a period of years, I got enough writing, editing, and translation projects to pursue freelance work full-time, which I thought would give me the greatest degree of control over my creative life.

However, just like any line of work, writing is a negotiation, and creative control is as elusive as financial stability. I discovered that writing could be like cleaning carpets or working in a factory: just a meaningless production of words. I think it only speaks to my naiveté that this surprised me. I made a mistake in believing that writing was a higher calling, that it existed in some pure form, or that it could escape market forces, strong-armed editors, or Huffington Post business models.

Although ideally I would get paid to write what I loved, the reality was murkier. I had waded into the dark waters of ghost writing, content writing, and pop culture news cycle fodder. On Elance, a site that markets pennies-for-word writing work to desperate writers living in developing countries, I found a job writing 50 blog posts on the value of carpet. At the time, I was backpacking through Honduras, and it seemed like a potential source of money. What could I write about carpet? I brainstormed and did a few Google searches like “carpet + benefits + fabulous.” I started to make a list of different carpet-related topics, but I kept thinking negative things like “carpet is a hideous dust collector” and “hardwood floors kick carpet’s butt.” I made up carpet songs and carpet jingles, imagined sexy carpet music videos with lovemaking scenes highlighting the carpet. But I never finished the first carpet blog post, because the moment I took it seriously, I felt eaten up by shame, as if I were devouring myself bit by bit by simply considering writing the blog posts.

Were these moments where I had to surrender and push the fucking rock up the hill, or did they evidence my decline as a writer? It is hard to want to be paid for writing, to know that your worth as a writer is predicated on your earning power, but to also realize that a lot of paid work is content production and marketing – not writing. What is the point of making money from writing, or insisting on being paid for my work, if the work I’m doing doesn’t mean anything artistically or creatively? Should I feel ashamed of writing things I don’t care about in order to take on projects I do care about? Should I get a normal job that will give me the stability to pick and choose my writing projects?

I thought about a lot of these things when I went home for Christmas last year, back to rural Arkansas where I grew up. My parents, a potter and a weaver, had bought land, built a house, and worked as self-employed artists for many years. I had seen and lived their additions and subtractions, the way they negotiated life to be able to pursue art. First they lived in a tent, and later they built their own house. They had a garden and an outhouse. Their car was old, money was tight, we had no health insurance, and we rarely traveled. But my childhood is all memories of additions, of growing up in a house where everything from the floors to the ceramics were made by hand.

On Christmas Eve, standing in the field below my house, its light exploding like a beacon into the night, I watched my friend Rodrigo as he set up his camera to take photos of the stars. Rodrigo had come to visit me from Mexico despite the fact that we hadn’t defined who we were or what we meant to each other. The lights in the house went off one by one, and then it was just us swathed in the night, surrounded by the Ozark mountains, looking for shooting stars. We were talking about the New Year, about what we wanted to do, him in terms of photography projects and me in terms of writing. He said, “I want to do my own projects and explode until there is nothing left.” We stood in the high grass, passing a bottle of mezcal back and forth, our warm breath making an imprint on the cold air.

During that week in Arkansas, he took photos and I wrote about growing up in Arkansas, both of us acting on instinct. Later, we put together a photo essay, My Homeland something that had no specific value beyond the fact that it was a moment and a place we wanted to capture. Then we became obsessed with a dried, dead opossum that my mom found in the barn. It looked like a gigantic flattened rat, and all its pointy teeth and claws were perfectly intact. Rodrigo called it “the dead thing,” and I joked that we should make a short film about it. And then we did, just because we wanted to – The Dead Thing From Arkansas. Writing about my homeland and running through the fields with a dead possum in my hands as Rodrigo filmed gave me a feeling of lightness, a happiness that came from the act of creation.

I now know that, more than anything else, I want creative control over my work. In late 2013, I acted on this belief and took a job that would respect my Ph.D. and pay me well, something I had never done before. I got a regular paycheck, and I wrote on nights and weekends.

In terms of the meaningless production of marketable words I wrote while freelancing, I have decided to forgive myself for pushing the fucking rock up the hill, because, hell, sometimes life is like that. I recognize that things aren’t always clear – not love or value or work – and that it is necessary to wrestle with a rock or a love that might not work out.

But I also want to learn from those experiences, to recognize what love and what work is worth fighting for, and to make them, like the dead opossum, into something meaningful.



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