Stephen Elliott on Why Two Roommates and $25K at Age 38 Equals a Lucky Man
I don’t go to a job like most people, and I don’t stay home with the children. I don’t have children. As I’m writing this, I see a very pregnant woman step out of a Mini Cooper and into a cafe. I don’t have a car. I had one 10 years ago, but it died.
You could say I’m self-employed, but that’s not quite accurate. I get up in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and bicycle down to the Writer’s Grotto where I have an office, or go for a walk. Then, for four or five hours, I write whatever I want. After that, I answer emails and edit pieces for an online literary journal I founded called The Rumpus. I do this seven days a week, but sometimes I only put in a half-day on Sunday, so I can watch football games with my friends.
A couple of years ago, I was lying in bed with one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. How we ended up in bed is another story, but the point is she was naked from the waist up, and I had no business being there. She leaned back, cupped my chin, and said, “Guess what? I don’t have to work on Wednesday. We can spend the whole day together.”
The way she was posed, the curve of her waist, reminded me of an advertisement for soap. I smiled. I think I actually laughed. As far as she could see, my days were wide open. She was aware of her beauty, and the value of her time, and the men who were eager for her company, as I was. “You don’t have to go to work,” I said, “but I have to go to work.”
She looked at me quizzically and said, “Of course.” She hadn’t meant to imply that I didn’t work. And I didn’t mean to lie to her. Somewhere in that brief, half-naked conversation was some sort of truth.
When I’m writing a book, I work roughly eight hours a day, seven days a week. I’ve passed years this way. I don’t pitch my work, and I don’t sell it before it’s done. In other words, I don’t wait for permission to put something on the page. When it’s finished, I try to get as much as I can for it, but you don’t have much bargaining power at that point. A finished work is only worth what someone will pay for it, if we’re talking about money. But I’m not usually talking about money.
I’m essentially retired. If I had a million dollars, I’d do the same thing. I don’t think my life would change at all, except I’d be less worried about who was going to take care of me when I’m old. Some mornings, I sit at the top of Dolores Park for hours, documenting the fog rolling in and catching on drain pipes like tufts of cotton or the dogs streaking across the lawn while their owners casually chat, holding empty leashes in their fists. Sometimes I stare at the page and nothing happens, and then nothing happens the next day, and then on the third day, I write, but on the fourth day, I realize what I wrote wasn’t any good, and I throw it away.
Ninety-nine percent of what I write is never published. I’m 38 years old, and I’ve published seven books. I live in San Francisco for the weather, and the people, and the sexual freedom, and for 826 Valencia, and Litquake, and the Writer’s Grotto, and the natural beauty. It is, as most everyone agrees, as gorgeous a city as exists anywhere on the planet.
But the rent is high. For the last few years I’ve shared a one-bedroom with two roommates, one of whom sleeps in the pantry. I’m poor, though not devastatingly so. I make around $25,000 a year in royalties and such. There are no sick days, no health insurance, no paternity leave. I’m not upset that I don’t have much money. Why would someone pay me to do whatever I please? I’m not owed anything.
Many writers my age approach it as a job. They’re journalists or ghost writers. Some are happy. Some are bitter. Writers who judge their own work by how much money they make are generally miserable. But a lot of writers don’t think that way—they’re just struggling by, creating art. Recently, a fellow writer said she was worried about her advance. She needed the money because she has kids. “You’re so lucky,” she said. “Why am I more lucky than you?” I asked.
But I am lucky. Occasionally a magazine editor might ask for something, but almost always I do exactly what I please. I could have moved to a small town, begun on the tenure track, and taught other people how to write. Instead I stay here. It’s like loving your job, except that if it was a job, I would have to think about money and productivity. Were those two poems an efficient use of my time? I would have to worry about whether what I was writing was something someone would want to buy, instead of worrying if it was something a few people might want to read.
Thirteen years ago, I was a bartender in Vail, Colorado. I lived in employee housing, had a five-mountain pass, and my friends from the merch shop fed me all the best equipment. I took a gondola to work and snowboarded two epic runs to get home. Almost every moment I wasn’t working, I was plummeting from peaks and racing between trees, the snow beneath me like a cloud. People came from all over the world to ski that mountain. The truly wealthy ones lived as close to the base as I did, but they didn’t get to cut the line at the chairlift. They drank at my bar and told me how lucky I was, and almost every day one of the men would say, “I wish I could switch places with you.” I would point to the tip jar, shake my head, and eye his wife.
When the season was over, I came down from the mountain and drove to Moab, Utah, and then through Nevada on Highway 50, the loneliest road in the county, listening to Radiohead like a living, breathing cliché. Then I arrived in San Francisco, where I ran out of money and gas. I had a story I’d written in those months on the mountain. I was from Chicago, but for a number of reasons I couldn’t go back. I was 26. I parked above the Castro and never left.
Stephen Elliott’s memoir, The Adderall Diaries (Graywolf Press), has garnered praise from Vanity Fair and the Los Angeles Times, among others. As we went to press, the book’s rights were acquired by James Franco, who plans to adapt, direct, and star in the movie.