The art of survival
About a year ago, I switched from using a coffee press to a drip machine, mostly because I wanted to program it to brew a pot automatically when my daughter wakes me up at five in the morning. Six cups is just about enough to get me through the day, and I stage it the night before by measuring out five spoonfuls of a cheap supermarket brand—my current favorite is Folgers Black Silk—and one spoonful of coffee from the gourmet aisle. (I’ve found that it doesn’t really matter which one.) Why bother? Well, the drip machine uses more coffee than my old press did, so I started stretching the good beans with the grocery store stuff. I began by mixing them in equal proportions, but somewhat to my surprise, I found that a single scoop of Gevalia, for instance, noticeably improved the flavor of the whole: it’s just enough to lend it some of the oiliness and complexity that I miss in the Folgers, which tastes like it’s been sprayed with artificial coffee flavoring. The result is that I end up spending a little less for what, to my tastebuds, is the same experience. I don’t present this as a life hack, exactly: it’s possible that a more discriminating coffee drinker would object to the difference. But it’s a good example of the kind of persnickety frugality that I often notice in myself. When I strop my safety razor each morning so that the blade lasts for months, I know that I’m saving a matter of pennies, but I can’t seem to stop. And I do it because I’m a writer.
I got to thinking about this after reading Nick Paumgarten’s recent profile in The New Yorker of Peter Adeney, better known as Mr. Money Mustache, the blogger who famously saved enough pennies from his software engineering job to retire at the age of thirty. Adeney’s idea of retirement differs a little from the standard definition: he works a lot, mostly at repair jobs in his small town in Colorado, but only because he enjoys it. (It’s also worth mentioning that his blog generates revenues of about four hundred thousand dollars a year, although he claims to stick to an annual budget of twenty-four thousand.) As Paumgarten notes:
Retirement, in [Adeney’s] hands, is a slippery term. It doesn’t mean playing golf or sitting on the porch. It is merely the freedom to do what he wants when he wants. He likes some kinds of work, when they aren’t jobs—carpentry, home improvement, the blog—but he disdains the idea of spending another minute of his life in a cubicle, in order to afford a dryer, or a Tesla…The point, for him, is to live lean and free.
It’s hard to argue with this. But this sort of freedom demands an exhausting degree of attention to a myriad of thrifty details. Adeney describes himself as “kind of” a stoner, but he’s a meticulous, obsessive one who is unable to turn off his compulsion to squeeze every ounce of value out of everything—sometimes literally, as when he uses a woodworker’s vise to get the last drop of juice from a lime. “He is aware that he is a handful,” Paumgarten writes. “He imagines that his wife’s inner voice whispers, ‘Your relentless optimizations are a drain on my life energy.’”
But “relentless optimization” sounds about right, and I think everyone who tries to write for a living ends up in much the same situation. I’ve said here before that the idea of being a writer is so egregiously impractical on the macro level that it naturally enforces a relentless pragmatism and efficiency on the microscopic scale. This applies both to the act of writing itself, as I noted in my post yesterday on the imaginative poverty that every writer learns to work around, and to economic survival. The top line for most writers, even successful ones, is rarely very high, so it helps to focus on the bottom line: the simpler your life, the easier it is to weather the dry periods that all writers face. (Whenever I run the risk of forgetting this, I go back to read Emily Gould’s essay “How Much My Novel Cost Me,” a vivid reminder of the fine line between a six-figure book deal and going broke.) There’s nothing virtuous about this, and I’m aware that luck and timing plays a big part in the outcome—and in both directions. If nothing else, though, a relentless focus on paring away the inessential extends the window of opportunity in which good things can happen, or at least minimizes the factors that tend to close it. A meaningful break might only come along once every five or ten years, assuming that you’ve managed to stick it out, but even then, you can’t relax. So you keep stretching out your coffee with an eye to the day in which you’ll have to regroup yet again.
And the artistic and economic aspects go hand in hand. When I look back at my life, I’m struck by how I tried to become more conscientiously frugal at the exact same time that I was seriously puzzling out how to write a novel. This wasn’t a coincidence: each half sustained the other, and learning how to edit a manuscript became inseparable from the act of editing myself. I felt driven to develop, once and for all, a set of tools that would allow me to finish writing a book because my financial circumstances didn’t allow for inactivity: I could calculate exactly how much each wasted hour was costing me. And I drove myself to become more efficient and frugal in visible ways because the goal was right there before my eyes. It felt as if my life were at stake. Even when my situation is relatively stable, as it is now, I can’t quite give up those old habits, although their benefits are mostly psychological. I feel more comfortable with staking so much on my ability to provide a roof and an overcoat if I can point to all the tiny ways I’m being practical. And it’s a fair trade. You could say that the price of freedom—for individuals as well as nations—is eternal vigilance, but that understates how instinctive, and even liberating, such tactics can feel when directed toward spending each day however you think best, hour to hour, minute by minute. Adeney gets at part of it when he says: “I’ve become irrationally dedicated to rational living.” And the flip side, as every writer learns, is to become rationally dedicated to an irrational life.