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Catalpa Trees, The Writing Life, & Privilege

There is a tall catalpa tree that grows in the front yard of the old farmhouse I rent from the City of Boulder—a tree that stands outside my office window as if to keep an eye on me as I write. According to the Colorado Tree Coalition the Western Catalpa blooms in late May and sometimes early June but this year the tree was naked and gray come late May when I remember it always being an extraordinary ceremony of large green leaves and almost exotic white flowers this time in the past. For weeks I’ve been going outside to scour the tree for any evidence of life, searching its arms and fingers for buds until I’d become convinced it had died. I was mourning the glory of its plumage and those dragon-like blossoms I’d enjoyed every spring from my view of the tree as I’d sat writing since I’ve lived in this house. Or maybe I was mourning the ritual and spaciousness of a time when writing felt easier. I was also undoubtedly mourning the fact it’s still an ordeal to pay the rent each month, mourning the fact I’d have no say on how this tree would be taken down just as I had no say in the way the kitchen was remodeled this past winter or when they came and cut down the weed tree that may have been a weed but was also the only shelter we had for our patio—a space now abandoned because without that shade it’s just too hot.

In the three or so years since my first novel debuted from Simon & Schuster I’ve been learning how to go about this thing called The Writer’s Life. Perhaps this is why I despaired the morning I sat down to write this in preparation for a panel I’d be on later in the day, aptly titled, “How to Live, What to Do.”

While it’s all been a dream come true it has also been a dream in the truest sense of that word—a dream—as in a realm where everything is forever shifting beneath my feet, unpredictable it’s always impossible to know what comes next.

Two summers ago I was invited to attend a large literary conference in San Francisco. While it was an all expenses paid kind of deal it was also a save certain receipts and you’ll be reimbursed type of affair. Fortunately, the major expenses such as the airfare and the hotel were covered up front, or else I would not have been able to attend. That said I still had to borrow $200.00 from my cousin just to pay for the cabs to and from the airport and to eat. For those of you now wondering how did she cover the cab rides and have anything left for food, you’re absolutely right—the money I had barely covered these expenses (fortunately my health took a turn for the worse while I was there and my sudden loss of appetite made it all possible!). Oh, and that money I borrowed? I only just paid it back.

I’m not telling you any of this to sound pathetic, I’m telling you this because I’m concerned about the Arts right now (and this trip and conference I’m about to tell you about was all pre-Trump administration). In fact I was there in San Francisco not only the weekend of Pride, but also the weekend when gay marriage was finally legalized nationwide. Instead, I’m telling you this because while I was at this conference I realized how much privilege the majority of the writers attending had. And I’m not talking about privilege achieved by the success of their writing—I’m talking about privilege they all appeared to have always had—privilege that even appeared to have made it possible for them to BECOME the artists they were in the first place.

For example, I was on a panel for all debut-writers and the last question we were asked was: “How did you spoil yourself with your advance money?” I’m not kidding. Furthermore the facilitator painfully articulated that we were not allowed to talk about anything we’d bought with our advance out of necessity or need. To make matters worse I was the last person in the line-up to answer. Apparently it was a group of writers with shoe fetishes as three out of the five authors then proceeded to describe the expensive shoes they’d purchased for themselves, including a custom pair handcrafted by Italian artisans that cost the equivalent of two months of my rent. So after the foot fetishists finished, the next writer who’s book had not only debuted with a six-figure advance but who’d also gotten a movie deal, went on to whine about he’d been in Europe when his check was cut, how he and his girlfriend at the time were splitting, and how he’d decided to use the money to renew his visa and spend the next six months in the South of France relaxing. And then it was my turn.

I didn’t want to be Debbie Downer—really—I’d been racking my brain trying to think, “What luxury had I allowed myself with my advance?” That same advance I was supposed to have received in two different installments—one in 2013 upon signing and one in 2014 upon finished copy edit—that advance I instead received a year late, all at once in December. That advance with all its tax penalties I’ll be forever paying off using the high interest monthly payment plan I finally convinced the IRS to allow me. A flood had wiped us out. While our houses (my rental and my father’s home) were untouched, the fact Highway 36 between Boulder and Lyons had literally washed away meant our family business—a once flourishing independent bookstore that was by then all mail order—suffered. The post office was closed indefinitely and my father was stranded on his thirteen acres in the mountains outside of town. My husband who worked for him could not get to his place of employment. My parents had worked all their lives to buy that property, but long story short, my dad was forced to do a reverse mortgage and my husband now works as a janitor.

I ended up telling my fellow panelists and the audience how I bought myself a new computer, something that was both a necessity and absolute luxury for someone like me. I’d been using an old PC someone had given me, a computer that was endlessly getting infected (especially with my preteen daughter using it for her own homework), and while I somehow never lost any of my novel, I did lose my entire critical thesis one week before it was due when the machine crashed. So I bought myself a brand new Apple desktop that cost more than any car I’d ever owned, but not after it took me five attempts (and the same number of panic attacks) to finally click the button labeled, BUY NOW.

As the weekend rolled along I listened to the writer who won the literary award associated with the conference discuss the research she’d done for her book. She showed us slides of the sculpture classes she’d taken in order to better identify with her artist protagonist. She’d not only hired some hot-shot prize-winning sculptor to teach her, someone who undoubtedly charged an arm and a leg for classes, the writer showed us picture after picture of her progress, joking all the while about the gigantic blocks of marble she’d butchered in pursuit of understanding the medium. I sat there thinking about how I hadn’t been able to even afford a trip to Kansas as research for my book. Instead, I explored the pasture behind my house, making sure I never looked west toward the Rockies where they stand, the flatirons there like giant slabs of dark chocolate.

I grew up in a bookstore so I’ve never been disillusioned that writing means instant fame and fortune but I do know this: It used to be a lot more possible for writers coming from nothing to pay their bills. In fact for the Intro to Lit class I’m teaching this summer I just played a video where Kurt Vonnegut talks about the heaps of money he used to make writing for the magazines. He finishes by saying this isn’t possible anymore.

I’ll confess: When I looked at the title for the panel—How to Live, What to Do—I’d wondered why I’d been asked to present.

I work really hard. I’m an adjunct instructor at FRCC and I teach privately via a workshop series I titled (W)rites of Passage—seasonally-inspired, I teach these classes four times a year and then I also work with clients one-on-one as a writing midwife (my version of a writing coach). I’m writing a screenplay with a friend and working as Editor-in-Chief for an up and coming literary app (think Twitter meets Flash Fiction). I do panels like the one I’m discussing or guest appearances like the workshop for teens I’d taught the night before at the library in Longmont. It can be really hard to have anything left over for my own writing.

But at least I get to talk about what I love most—literature, both the reading of and the writing of; furthermore, I’m forever learning about the craft by helping others puzzle their way through their own projects. It’s all cyclical, and some days I’m so drained I think I can’t possibly go on, but other days I’m so inspired by the writers I work with, by my own writing, by the conversation, the give and take, I can’t believe how lucky I am, how rich.

Fun fact: Each time I typed the title of this panel, I typed How to Love instead of How to Live, and I think that’s important—I think that is significant.

As for that catalpa tree I was talking about earlier? Turns out it’s not dead after all. A week ago the first leaves burst forth, a vibrant green; then last night, while I was watering the garden I saw that some of the flowers had finally unfurled. The next morning when I typed this up for the presentation, the tree watched me through the window, and as it did, it was entirely bejeweled by these temporary gems. We have to support each other as artists. We must make sure we don’t give our art away for free. We can’t let the rich and privileged steal this from us as well. Write good reviews for each other. Attend each other’s readings and events. Buy each other’s books or request them from the libraries. The catalpa might still die.

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