Posted November 12th, 2011 by

Zora Neale Hurston

I always aspired to be a writer. That is, a full-time creative writer who makes a living from the written word — a good living. But I learned early on that a creative writer is highly unlikely to be remunerated in fair proportion to effort expended. I therefore chose a different career, as a marketing communications consultant. My choice ended up being, fortunately, a career that enabled me to write a great deal… just not about the subjects dearest to my heart.

My default profession, motivated as it was by compromise, enabled me to make a very good living indeed. I used my talents to wax prolific about the attributes of consumer products. My writing inspired sales of Coca-Cola soft drinks, McDonald’s hamburgers, Barbie dolls and Beefeater gin, amongst many others. It was a proud day indeed when Harper’s magazine, after culling the universe for “gleaming points of significance,” reprinted one of my sales boosting essays — a character sketch of an “authentically African American” Mattel doll named “Shani.” Mattel sold 15 million units in record time. Was that vindication for the choice I made?

Emboldened by the praise of employers, I tucked my creative aspirations away, joking to friends that I couldn’t give free reign to my ambitions because I didn’t want to live in a garret. (For those who don’t know, a garret is “a room or unfinished part of a house just under the roof.”) In my romantic imagination, this was the inauspicious abode of the writers I most admired. As I read the stories of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin galavanting around Paris, I envied their spirited lives, fully aware that all of them undoubtedly went home to attic apartments. (This is a reality I experienced firsthand when I lived in Paris as a restaurateur, trying to get a grip on my frustrated ambition of writing a cookbook.) Baldwin endured poverty for eight long years. Hughes worked as a nightclub doorman.  Wright lasted 18 months before fleeing, in existential angst, to Argentina. Claude McKay and Jean Toomer spent nights playing cards at Le Dome, surely reluctant to go home to who can imagine what accommodations. Zora Neal Hurston, although never a resident of Paris but one of my idols nonetheless, died an impoverished maid, interred in an unmarked grave. These were fates I chose not to embrace… until now… in these last days that are left to me to say what I need to say before being consigned to the memories of my grandchildren, Julian and Violet.

At this late date, I am aggressively working to change my personal paradigm. I long to unburden so many things that have been on my mind for a lifetime of days, weeks, months, years…. decades.

Writing Gather at the Table has been a phenomenal exercise. I am ecstatic about being provided the opportunity to push many of my thoughts about race, slavery, life, healing and justice out of the confines of my private thoughts into the light of written words. Tom and I have collaboratively written the absolute best we can on this topic that is dear to our hearts. It is a soul exposition that awaits its birth into public consciousness.

Today, here I sit in my upstate New York retreat — the place to which I absconded to find peace of mind and write — enduring the finalization and publication of Sharon’s first long-form effort — a fully realized BOOK…. an actual, tangible, incredible, heartfelt expression of things I have been holding inside me for lo these many years.

The wait is excruciating.

I am not so naive as to think this novice effort will make me rich. Certainly not in money. But, what is rich?

I live in a nice house.  Three bedrooms. Two baths. Ensconced in a rural area surrounded by nature. Resting upon an acre and a half of land, deer graze in my back field. Squirrels romp in the attic. A bear ravaged my trash can a few weeks ago.  Field mice are coming in for the winter (which makes my cat very happy.) I love it!

Even so, I am chastened with the fact that my savings are exhausted. I eat because of the public benefit of food stamps. I have no idea how I will buy oil for winter heat.  I don’t have money to imbibe alcohol, consume cigarettes (a good thing) or take in movies that I so love to watch. The petrol in my car allows only a once weekly visit to the post office to collect mail dominated by demands for payment of money I no longer have. I am living in the garret I so assiduously sought to avoid.

All I can hope on this day is that I can write myself into a new place…. a new reality… a world where money is not the definition of who is worthy or who is not. A place where who we are is not defined by what we have. A place that is warm and cozy with recognition of what is really important.

I write and therefore I am.


7 responses to “Economics”

  1. Esther Brown says:

    A place that is warm and cozy with recognition of what is really important.

    And that is the secret to life, isn't it?

    Thank you!


  2. Wow! I'm nearly speechless, Sharon. This is so beautifully written, it almost brings tears to my eyes. On top of that, some things you say touch my very core. I didnt aspire to be a writer, but I've been writing poetry for about 45 years. I may have written one or two decent ones in that time. So much of what you said so eloquently I have thought and felt. It pleases me to know that someone I know has expressed these longings more brilliantly than I. Why? Because I am inspired! I can struggle for another 25, no, 50 years, knowing the last 50 have not been for naught.
    Little did we know back in the 60's where we'd go or where we'd be in this new millennium. But just think, the next quarter century will be a blast, as you travel the world again, but this time as the "overnight" sensational writer you've always been that the world is finally recognizing. I wish you the best on your book, along with a Pulitzer or two…:)

  3. Dear Sharon… you speak the words bouncing around in my heart every day of my writing life. I, too, realized early on it wasn't possible to pay the bills with my writing income. Even when I was making regular money as an arts journalist, I was exhausting myself working by night and going to my day-job by day, and with very little to show for it. I was lucky to be able to get out of journalism and to become a biographer, and see my biographies of people whose courage inspired me get published and stand on bookstore shelves and be reviewed in prestigious places. But they still don't pay all the bills. I am also lucky to have found jobs in the nonprofit world, where at least I can be sure I am spending 8 hours each weekday being of help to others as well as myself. (My only job selling anything was working for a Beverly Hills antiques dealer, and if that isn't enough to turn one off commerce I don't know what is.) And I am lucky to have a spouse who supports me in all I do, even when our credit cards stretch thin. He believes in me, and that's the greatest gift of all.

    We all believe in you, Sharon – that is our gift to you for the gift you give back to us!

    With admiration – Grant

  4. Toni Carrier says:

    Sharon, can't wait to read your book! Garret living is underrated … keep at it and congrats on your book!

  5. sylvielewi8 says:

    I am inspired by your story. Love what you are doing–writing in a peaceful, beautiful house. Publishing a great book. How blessed you are and talented. Wishing your much success with the book and looking forward to reading it.

  6. Joseph Mann says:

    Don't worry about your garret, your light will shine anywhere and through anything. I have faith in you kiddo. Luck and well wishes come your way from me without ceasing.

  7. As a young writer about to leap off to begin a "real writing" a.k.a. Media Gig in Ireland, this is excellent inspiration! Good luck with your beautiful new life in writing, madame. 🙂

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