“Flophouse Budget Lifestyle”

27 Feb

Remember the other day when I waxed poetic about my submission spreadsheet? Well, I just stumbled upon Aaron Gilbreath’s article “The Business of Tracking Lit Mag Submissions” on Tin House‘s blog. I loved his old-fashioned pen-and-paper advice. This paragraph punched me in the gut:

Accepting contributor copies as payment for something that took six to twelve months to write; subsisting off microwavable Trader Joes food in order to keep your expenses low enough that you can afford time to write; working temp and odd jobs while publishing in magazines that writers respect but non-writers have never heard of – that’s monkey business. To have an adult’s business mindset and the flophouse budget lifestyle of a twenty year old musician seem antithetical, but I think of those things as part of the business of writing: few poets or essayists make enough money to support themselves by writing, but if you’re willing to live frugally and without popular recognition, you can enjoy a gratifying creative freedom by writing for literary magazines.

It’s so important to protect your creative freedom. There was a time when I didn’t. When I’d take little writing jobs here or there just for the few extra pennies in my pocket and the thrill of seeing my name in print. It took a breakup for me to realize I’d been squandering my time and my creative energy. I don’t publish as much these days, but the writing I’m doing is better, more thoughtful, more “me.” It’s worth more, to me.

And yet it’s so difficult to explain what Gilbreath phrases as “To have an adult’s business mindset and the flophouse budget lifestyle of a twenty year old musician” to someone who isn’t an artist.

Especially when you live in New York City, where the first question someone asks you is “What do you do for a living?” and where you’re judged by which neighborhood you live in. Here, a box of pasta costs double of what it costs over the bridge in New Jersey. Being middle class in New York City isn’t really the same as being middle class in other parts of the country.

Take this quote from The New York Times’ article “What Is Middle Class in Manhattan?“:

By one measure, in cities like Houston or Phoenix — places considered by statisticians to be more typical of average United States incomes than New York — a solidly middle-class life can be had for wages that fall between $33,000 and $100,000 a year.

By the same formula — measuring by who sits in the middle of the income spectrum — Manhattan’s middle class exists somewhere between $45,000 and $134,000.

But if you are defining middle class by lifestyle, to accommodate the cost of living in Manhattan, that salary would have to fall between $80,000 and $235,000. This means someone making $70,000 a year in other parts of the country would need to make $166,000 in Manhattan to enjoy the same purchasing power.

Or this one from NY Daily News‘ “N.Y.C. so costly you need to earn six figures to make middle class“:

In Manhattan, a $60,000 salary is equivalent to someone making $26,092 in Atlanta.

And of course, there’s this one from The Huffington Post’s “New York City’s Middle Class Is Facing An ‘Affordability Crisis,’ Says Christine Quinn“:

City Council defines “middle class” as those with a household income within 100 to 300 percent of the area median income (AMI). In New York City, that means an income ranging from $66,400 to $199,200.

I personally don’t have a “flophouse budget lifestyle.” I have a Career. Yes, capital “C.” I enjoy the work I do, and it also affords me the creative space I need to work on my writing without having to make a living off my writing, though I do earn money for my writing.

But, what does “lifestyle” really even mean? Reading and writing, and even being part of the literary community, do not require much money. There was some talk a while back about bookstores considering charging for readings, however most readings in New York City are free. Libraries lend out books for free. Museums have pay-what-you-wish days. There are more literary opportunities for writers in New York City than in many other places in the country, so in some ways it evens out. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.

I did think this Onion article was funny, though.


3 Responses to ““Flophouse Budget Lifestyle””

  1. David Amram February 27, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    Dear Stephanie

    Thank you for this fine mini-essay on how to survive and flourish on your own terms and continue to do what you feel you were put here to do.

    Excellent advice for all artists of all ages.
    I always tell kids that what you do to pat your rent has no bearing on your value as an artist.
    And that in our society, what you deserve and what you get have NOTHING to do with one another.

    So it is best to just DO it, and ignore career councilor types who will convince you that there is no market for what you do, that the field is overcrowded and that you should give up before you even have a chance to start

    Miles David in 1959, in his album “Kind of Blue” named one of his classic songs “So What?”
    I am sure, knowing him, that this is what he thought after receiving criticism from those who knew a lot about retail merchandizing but little about the necessity of everyone following their creative muse.
    “So what?” is a good mantra as well as a good response to bad advice so often given for the millions of people today who have a song in their heart and a story to tell.

    So just go ahead and do it anyway!!

    No one can stop you from being creative!

    Your blog is a treat to read
    Hronia Pollah!!


    • Stephanie Nikolopoulos February 27, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

      David, yes! I have to keep in mind what you said: “what you deserve and what you get have NOTHING to do with one another.” There are so many talented artists we revere today who never found “success” in their lifetime. As artists, we sometimes sway from one extreme of entitlement to the other of thinking our work is pointless—sometimes within the same hour! Really, though, our art should be an outpouring of our passion. When we get sidetracked, we miss out on the beauty of what we do.

      Whenever I bring friends to your concerts, they always tell me afterwards they feel so refreshed and inspired by your message that we CAN pursue art, that we don’t have to quit our passions just because our parents tell us they’re not profitable. I love your message of “hangoutology,” that the best can be hanging out with talented people who teach us and challenge us and inspire us, and likewise hanging out with other aspiring artists and walking beside them in their journey. And in the end, isn’t community more important than fame or money? What is “success” if we have no one to share it with or if we’re miserable trying to achieve it?

  2. David Amram February 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Please forgive my mispelling Miles Davis (not David) and pay your rent (not pat your rent)

    My low budget necessitates my being my own secretary, and I cant fire myself or I would be slapped with an age-discrimination suit for firing an 82 year old bad typist! (that’s me!!)

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