In conversation not too long ago, someone asked me when I felt I had “made it.” It’s a fair question; for a writer, there are a lot of milestones that could be the points at which one feels one has made it. Selling that first book is an obvious one (selling the second book, a less obvious but no less relevant one), as is the first time you are nominated for an award, or win one, or hit a bestseller list, or get a starred review in the trades. Getting a movie or TV option is a big one. Seeing someone you don’t know reading a book of yours out in the world. Any of these are perfectly good moments to stop and say, hey, I guess I’ve made it.
My moment isn’t any one of those. My moment came a couple of years ago, when I was driving out of town and noticed my gas tank was almost empty. So I stopped at the gas station, slid my credit card into the pump, filled up my gas tank, replaced the nozzle, got back into my car and drove away. And then realized a couple of miles down the road that at no point did I look to see how much the gas cost per gallon, or how much the whole tank of gas cost me. I didn’t look because I didn’t have to. No matter how much it cost, I knew I had it. I knew I could afford it.
That was my moment.
Some of you, I suspect, are looking a bit puzzled at this. So it’s here that I need to give you a bit of context.
When I wrote “Being Poor” back in 2005, the very first thing I wrote in the piece was “Being poor is knowing exactly how much everything costs.” The reason I wrote that is because when you are poor, you have to know how much everything costs, because you know exactly how little you have to spend, and how much you need to get through your day. You have to strategize how to apply your money.
Like so: You have $10 for the whole day. Gas costs $3.12 a gallon. You have a quarter tank of gas to go somewhere 25 miles away and then get back. Do you need to put in more gas? How much do you have to put in to do what you have to do? Is the gas going to be cheaper ten miles down the road? Will you have enough left over when you’ve put gas in your tank to buy the other things you have to get today? Can they wait? If they can’t wait, how much will you need for them? Will what you have left give you enough for gas? And so on.
I’ve seen people here in town come into the gas station and ask for very specific amounts of gas. I don’t have to ask why they’re asking the cashier for exactly three dollars and twenty five cents worth of gas, or whatever amount they ask for. I know why. It’s exactly the amount they can afford that day, and, hopefully, exactly the amount they need. They’ve thought it out. They’ve made the numbers work as well as they can. I know it because I’ve seen it done it my own life, growing up; the calculus of what you can afford today, what will have to wait for tomorrow and what things can be put off until the absolute last minute.
If you grow up with that sort of resource calculus as part of your daily existence, you almost never get free of it; you’re always checking tallies in your head. And to be sure, in a very real sense this is not a bad thing at all — not knowing what you’re spending on things is a very fine way for anyone to quickly and suddenly go broke. You should be keeping track of your income and outgoes. It’s a basic and laudable life skill.
But I would argue that with folks who do it (or have done it) from a place of poverty, there’s a difference in both degree and kind. Like your grandmother who lived through the Great Depression and never threw out a piece of string because “you never knew when it will come in handy” and therefore had a ratty ball of string no one wanted to touch, much less use, there’s something pathological about poverty accounting — a need to know the precise cost of things and the worry that at the end of the day, no matter what you do, there’s just not going to be enough. You keep track of costs not because it’s a smart thing to do. You keep track of costs because you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I have that sensibility in my head. And again, on one hand, it’s not all bad: we save a lot of the money we have come in, and I have what I think is a realistic sense of what we can afford and what we can’t — and as a full-time writer, whose income is (heh) variable, it’s good to have more than a little ingrained awareness of one’s financial circumstances.
On the other hand, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and for no good reason plan out a strategy for an imminent income apocalypse. What if everything you’ve ever written stops selling? What if you can’t sell the next book? What if Krissy loses her job? What if you can’t get back into marketing and consulting? What then what then WHAT THEN? And then I spend three hours imagining how we downsize to survive on nothing until I finally fall back asleep from mental exhaustion. When I wake up in the morning I’m fine, because rationally I know that I’m doing all right, and my writing career is unlikely to go up in a sudden, inexplicable flash. But the WHAT THEN? voice stays in the background, because it remembers what it was like to have to think about those contingency plans in one’s day-to-day life.
And this is why, a couple miles down the road from the gas station, the sudden realization that I didn’t worry about the price of gas, that I had just gassed up and went, hit me like an electric shock. I had literally never done that before. It wasn’t about the not knowing the exact cost of the gas; I could find that out just by looking at my credit card statement. It was that it finally had gotten into my brain that I could afford things. That I didn’t have to do the mental calculation of the cost of the gas from a place of anxiety. That I had the confidence that I could afford what I just spent — not the confidence intellectually, which I had, but confidence in the part of my brain that wakes me up at 3am in a panic about everything going to hell. For that part of my brain, miraculously, everything checked out.
That’s when I knew I had made it.
The irony is that since then, I can’t not look at the cost of the gas I’m pumping into my car, if only because I remember driving away that one time, not looking. The difference is now, when I look at the amount, it’s not because my brain is having a tiny, muted but still real bit of panic about the cost. It’s because I just need to know how much I spend, like any person should.
It’s a small difference, and unnoticeable from the outside. But on the inside, it means that a lot has changed. It means I made it. I am grateful I have done so.