My earliest memories from childhood are of watching my mother work. Snapshots of life in different uniforms: Her behind the counter during the night shift at CVS, her wrangling neighborhood kids as she ran her own daycare, her working full days teaching reading at the elementary school and coming home to take online classes to put herself through a bachelor’s degree program.
She was a woman on a mission, machine-like, in her efforts to keep our heads above water. She did not take vacations. She did not get manicures. She worked because we were working people, the working poor, and that was what we did.
It wasn’t resignation that told me to expect that same level of tirelessness from my own adulthood, it was a dogged determination. It was simply thought, if never simply executed: If you want your people to survive, you will do everything in your power to provide for them, for yourself. There would be no fallback plan, no wealthy grandparents to call for help, no property to one day inherit, no passing go and collecting $200. If I failed, it would cost me everything.
So, I did what Good Daughters are supposed to do. I was going to achieve my way, our way out of poverty. I went to college and majored in journalism, which, if not a lucrative career, seemed at least a practical use of my skills. I applied for every scholarship, took the right internships, studied under the best people. I often did not love the work I was doing, but I understood that I was not a person who had the luxury of always loving their work.
It wasn’t the job of a career to make you happy all of the time, its duty was to get you paid. To give you healthcare benefits and keep a roof over your head and pay you adequately so should the day come when an emergency befell your parents or siblings, you’d have enough money to send home to them.
This is not to say that my mother didn’t encourage me to follow my dreams. She did. At every turn, it was her voice in my ear saying, “You can achieve anything you want to. It’s different for you. The whole world is at your fingertips.”
But the knowing and the knowing are two different things. What would make me happy, I decided, was being comfortable. One day I would make enough money to travel and go out to eat every night if I wanted to and buy my parents elaborate Christmas gifts. And no matter what I did professionally, if that were the case, I could rest easy at night.
To have what we needed would, of course, be sufficient. But to have what we wanted — the small, unnecessary luxuries of a life without lack? That would be enough.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I set out to write an essay about love stories, a task at which I would consider myself something of an expert. And I have some notes about that if you’re interested in hearing them.
This is the truth: Writing about first love for a living is a magical gift. Being sixteen and confused and passionate is one of the most devastating and exciting things in the world. I remember it vividly.
Brushed hands across a lunch table. Secret, flirtatious texts on a phone your parents still pay for. The heart-skip between I like you and Do you like me back? I weave these sense memories between A plots and B plots, between guns on the mantle in the first act and guns going off in the third. I fashion queer teen love out of a combination of retroactive wish-fulfillment and mapmaking. I make work that I hope undoes the damage of a world which tells queer folks, queer people of color especially, that we aren’t worthy of love or tenderness or longevity.
Through a particular lens, my writing career is a love story of sorts in and of itself. It happened before I believed it would, was almost fairytale-like until it wasn’t. And at one point, it felt like it was over, felt like I should give up on it entirely, as I have often felt about love. I would be more specific about the details, but they are decidedly unromantic, and I’m trying to get at something here, so forgive me. What matters is that I pivoted, rediscovered myself, and came out the other side a Professional Writer.
A career like the one I’ve had so far is not the standard. I have been very lucky. There’s no denying that.
But I want you to understand this: There are days when I find it difficult to write tenderly. There are days when these fictions feel inadequate. There are days when I’m sure I won’t ever be able to get another character from a meet cute to a cinematic final chapter kiss. Not because of imposter syndrome or writers’ block. But because it is hard to be tender when I feel half full of exhaustion.
And it is near-impossible to gently usher my characters from chapter to chapter on days when I resent the very act of writing.
Because this, too, is the truth: For as much as I love my work, and as grateful as I am to be able to do it — this is still my job. I am now and will forever be a child of poverty, clinging to every dime I make like it’s my last. Every word I write, every manuscript I complete, and every proposal my agent sells is another stone in the fortress I am building to protect myself from slipping back into the type of life I wanted so badly to escape once upon a time. Writing, working, does and has always felt like life or death to me.
And that’s not a love story. It’s just a fact.
When I was a student, I would often call my mom during breaks between classes or running from one work-study gig to the next. When she wouldn’t answer, I would pout, as children often do, about not being able to reach her for guidance the moment a small crisis appeared — fully aware of the fact that she was busy during business hours but hoping, always, to catch her in her own in-between moments. When she’d call me back after she’d left work, her refrain was always the same: “I was working, Leah. Some of us have to work.”
It’s a running joke between us now. In my adulthood, the perceived urgency of my younger self is laughable. That I thought my mom — who still, years later, works more hours than any woman her age has any business working — could drop everything and come tend to me on a whim. The sheer absurdity of the belief that people like her — like me up until fairly recently — have the luxury of convenience in the ways we do our jobs.
When every day, every paycheck means the difference between lights or not, food or not, cell phone or not, there is no such thing as a “break.wp_postsI didn’t understand it then, but I understand it now. Now that there are sabbaticals, and extended deadlines when I’m spread too thin, and scenic mountainside retreats when I need to “unplug.”
Now that there is an option for rest, for refueling, and I still do not allow myself to take it, I understand it better than I ever have.
You need to be working, Leah. Some of us will always have to work.
When I talk to my friend, V, about this essay, and my vulnerability about sharing what is, in part, one of my greatest shames — how fragile I feel about the act and intensity of my writing — she points me in the direction of a newsletter that tapped a Phillip Roth quote, which has stuck with me since. He said that writing is a nightmare, but it isn’t necessarily hard.
Perhaps this work isn’t as hard as I’ve often purported it to be. I mean, it certainly, as Roth also said, isn’t coal mining. Barely more than a generation ago, my family was composed of sharecroppers, and even now, blue-collar factory employees and schoolteachers and custodial workers. Meanwhile, I sit at a desk with a thousand-dollar laptop and play pretend for a living. To complain about my work feels trivial at best, and, at worst, a slap in the face to the people who got me here.
But poverty, I’ve learned, especially that which we experience in childhood, is psychological. Being poor, therefore, isn’t something you outgrow. It shapes you. It seeps into your marrow. You can neither achieve nor logic your way out of trauma.
There is no threshold of success that, for me, is going to alleviate the gnawing sensation of This is not enough. Of: But what if it disappears? Of: Okay but what next? I am constantly waiting for the repo man to bring out the truck and haul away my life. When it comes to money, everything is fleeting. They don’t teach you this in the MFA, how the image of the starving artist is idealistic until you know what it’s really like to go hungry.
Money, or capitalism at large, I suppose, has created an unavoidable tension between myself and my work. As I write this, I am procrastinating drafting a novel that I have already been paid a great deal of money to write. In some ways, this essay saves me from the ordeal of having to look at my imagination straight on — this reckless beast of a thing which has willed joy out of thin air time and time again — and find it wanting. Find it inadequate. Find it depleted.
In other ways, this essay is just another in a string of works that take my gift and turn it to fuel for a future. I am aware that it is uncouth to talk about money in polite company, about how much it means to me and how much I would — and have — sacrificed in order to have it. I am both pleased with myself for what I’ve achieved and ashamed of not having done more, constantly oscillating between pride and fear and so much wanting.
I live comfortably. I have money saved for emergencies and spontaneous travel. I just bought a house. I’ve pulled myself up by my bootstraps. This is the American Dream.
I’d planned to write about the craft of writing love stories, yet here I am. Forgive me.
It’s just, there is no way for me to address one of these things without the other. That is the truth, and I am in the business of writing honestly, especially about the things that hurt — heartbreak, disappointment, shame, poverty. My work — all those swoony kisses and witty banter-y conversations and idealistic first dates — is tied together with my desperation, with my deep desire to create the type of financial stability that a number of my contemporaries simply have, either due to nepotism or spousal support or just good old-fashioned luck.
I don’t know everything. The older I get, the more convinced I am, in fact, that I don’t know very much at all. But I believe this about love stories: Once you flip past the last page and close the book, your knowledge becomes incomplete. If the writer has done what they should, you will imagine a life for the characters past what you’ve been given access to, but you will never know for sure. The last page is merely a suggestion.
So fellow writers, please hear me when I say this: I want you to know that every book doesn’t have to be the book of your heart. Every essay doesn’t have to excavate the darkest depths of your most secret parts. It is okay to be motivated by money, and perhaps it’s okay, too, to be resentful of the fact that you are motivated by money. I want you to know that I’m exhausted too. That today I woke up and I didn’t want to write, that I crafted scenes I’m not yet proud of, but will revise and revise until I am. Because that is the work.
I want you to know that we are here and we are doing the best we can with what we have and it’s not always okay but it is a life. It is your life. It is my life.
In the tradition of love stories, this last paragraph is merely a suggestion. It is a stopping point for now, but if I’ve done my job, you will imagine a life past what I’ve given you access to. Mine, sure, but yours too. Perhaps in that imagining, we work less, we are secure in what we’ve achieved and have divorced ourselves from the idea that every word we write is the brick wall that stands between us and failure. Us and ruin. Us and and and and —
There is still love here, in the work.
I choose to imagine that we find it.