I’ll be honest: I read Taylor Cotter’s Huffington Post piece with an ever increasing mix of horror and bemusement. For those of you who don’t want to give HuffPo the clicks (understandably so), I’ll summarize. Cotter writes about how she’s 22, she has her own car, apartment, steady full time job, and a 401k. She’s on the path to success. But she longs for the “10 cent a word” life that she sees in Girls, and wonders if she’s not missing out on something by being this successful at 22. After thinking about it, I have two responses...actually three, but “sit down and shut up” is really more of a request than a response.
First, quit romanticizing poverty. I see this a lot in white-bred suburban hipsters who long for a city life where they don’t have a steady job and are working paycheck to paycheck.
“I’d like that kind of life,” they say. “After all, most of the great writers were starving artists and I’ll never have any good things to write about if I don’t experience a little bit of life.”
(Subpoint: No. They weren’t. Fitzgerald and Hemingway? Quite well off. Shakespeare? Sponsored by the Queen. Oscar Wilde? High society. The “starving artist” trope is a 20th century invention).
It is in those moments that I want to renege on my pacifist declarations and slap a little sense into them.
Poverty is not romantic.
Poverty is not inspiring.
Poverty is not adventurous.
Poverty is not FUN.
You know what poverty is? It’s staring at a single digit balance wondering how you’re going to pay for food for the next five days. It’s hoping against hope that the electric company doesn’t cash your check for a couple of days because it’ll bounce otherwise. It’s ramen noodles or beans and rice for every meal (which gets really boring after awhile, trust me). It’s being one missed shift or one broken arm away from the street and the constant worry that brings.
The artists you want to plan your life after? They wouldn’t go back to poverty for anything in the world. JK Rowling was a poor, struggling mother before she wrote about a boy wizard. She’s written into her books (particularly in the characters of the Weasley family), the hardship, external shame, and the worry that comes with that struggle.
It’s not pretty. It’s not adventurous. And, by god, it is not romantic.
If you read the story of a guy who becomes successful after having a hard-knock life in the middle of the inner city, and your conclusion is, “Gosh, I wish I had that hard upbringing! Then I’d have something to write about!” – well, you are just the worst, aren’t you? A life full of hardship and struggle is not enviable. The ability to say that it is – whining about having it all together at 22 – is the height of privilege.
That’s my first point. And here’s a second, more personal one, addressing this as one privileged white girl to another.
In many ways, I’m very like Cotter.
At 22, I was entering a Master’s program at a prestigious university. I completed the program in faster time than most, and had a job lined up before I even defended my thesis. At 26, I have a steady full time job, am no longer dependent on my parents financially, have a retirement fund, health care benefits, good coworkers, and my writing career is taking off. I “have it all,” so to speak, and I love my life.
But occasionally, when I’m making that car payment at the end of the month and driving to my 9-5, I have these thoughts. I understand them. I wish I wasn’t in the suburbs. I wish I had a little studio apartment in Wicker Park/Bucktown and could spend my days hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop writing and my nights having various adventures I’d write about the next day. Life in the suburbs is sometimes, dare I say, boring?
I have these thoughts, and then I mentally slap myself.
Because that’s one of the parts of being privileged – recognizing that you probably have more opportunities than your neighbor – and mentally slapping yourself when you forget about it.
Back when I started the (awesome) job that I’m in now, I met with members of the board of trustees, and had to give them a bit of my life story. I spoke to one of them later at lunchtime, and she told me that, after I left, they’d had a discussion in which they were trying to guess my age. I laughed and explained that I’m 25 (I was at the time), and she said that they thought I looked pretty young, but I’d done so much in my life that they didn’t want to believe I was only in my mid-20s.
You see, privileged people of the world who whine about how your life is boring because it's not like Lena Dunham on Girls? You have opportunities and chances if you’re willing to take them. Those whose impoverished life you are currently envying? They don’t.
You, presumably, have vacation time, and the means to take a vacation. A single mom of three working two part time jobs to make ends meet? She doesn’t.
You have health insurance, which means that you can take some risks. That mom of three living in poverty? She worries every time her kids go outside to play.
You have – contrary to what you would have if you had a “starving artist” lifestyle – the ability to make your own adventure.
When I was an 18 year old college freshman, I wrote a piece very like this. I lamented that my life was “normal,” and that I wasn’t having the adventures I craved.
And then I grew up, and recognized that I, of all people, had the ability and the means to make those adventures happen. That’s part of being in the privileged class! You have opportunity after opportunity at your fingertips to make your life more “adventurous.”
When I realized that I wanted more, I did a semester abroad in England. I lived in a house with 23 other Americans and went to lectures by some of the greatest minds in the world of academia. I took time to feed ducks in the park, and I crashed the audience at rugby matches. I took a train to see Ian McKellan act in King Lear and ran the mile back to the train station to make the last train home.
And in graduate school, when I started getting antsy? I took a trip to India and met with victims of human trafficking and played an impromptu game of cricket with the neighborhood children. After that, I lived in Japan for 9 months and traveled on my own to South Korea, where I stood just over the border into North Korea and tried my hardest not to smile at the North Korean soldiers.
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to land in a job that requires me to travel. Last November, I went to Ecuador and tried to balance an egg at the Equator.
Basically: I’ve been incredibly lucky in my life. A lot of my most treasured memories would not have happened had I not been born into the life Cotter laments having. If I had that starving artist life at 22 that Cotter envies, I never would have found myself standing on a beach in Korea at 24.
Being an impoverished starving artist worried about rent is not what it means to be 22.
Ms. Cotter: you are lucky. And yet, you’re whining about how your life is boring?
If you want that starving artist life, fine, go do it. Maybe it’ll leave your cushy life for someone who actually appreciates and understands what a privilege it is.
[The above photo is one I took on Haeundae beach in Busan, South Korea, in 2010. Yeah, I'm freaking lucky.]