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Money, Money, Money/ Ain't It Funny/ In a Rich Man's World
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How To Cure A Ghost is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I love talking about money, mainly because I’ve learned so much in conversations where I’m talking about it with other people.
After a few years of living in New York, especially in my twenties, I realized there was a lot of secret wealth or hefty invisible paychecks of some people I knew and basically I realized that we were not all living in the same circumstances, even if we were living side by side, sharing the same subways, eating the same food.
A couple of years ago, in 2018, I was doing an event for Bon Appetit’s Healthyish and I was asked to be on a panel. When I asked how much the rate was, I was told there was no budget. This was frustrating because I really needed the money, but I decided this would be one of the rare moments I worked for free, doing work for exposure.
I worked for free for so many years in my twenties. For almost two years, I worked at StyleLikeU as an unpaid intern, which is where I met my Zeba, more than twelve years ago, but also our friends the sublime editor/writer Camille Okhio and the brilliant designer James Phlemons. I feel like we were the last generation that worked for nothing, in order to create contacts and “network”—as in just meet the right people. I guess this is how you’re tasked to create influence — it’s all just about connection, but really, your reputation.
The amount of articles I’ve written for exposure, which in the 2010s was actually a thing, is in the hundreds. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, how normalized it was to give your ideas away for free. People still try and come to me with unpaid gigs, but I’m glad we have the work of Tricia Hersey constantly reminding us — NO. These days I’m completely blunt, as I was taught to be through my experiences. No one will advocate for you (unless you get lucky) but in my case, no one really did. I had to walk and run my way up the writing food chain and find ways where I could write, and where people could pay me sustainably to write. Yet finding sources that align with me politically and socially, as well as pay well (as in a living wage, not $250 for an essay, which some places still offer me) but where I don’t have to hustle like I did almost every day of my twenties.
I moved back to New York in 2017 after living in Montreal for four years on cheap rent and free Canadian healthcare (I was born in Ontario), it was an oasis for me for the care and resources it gave me, but also as a place for me to sharpen my skills at writing since I hadn’t finished university. I had been working in retail and service since I was 14 years old, so I had a strong kind work ethic. By 21, two years after I escaped a terrible violent homelife, never to return back to Australia again, I landed a part-time remote copywriting job at Groupon Singapore. It paid relatively OK, and I loved my editor, a charming Singaporean local I had a crush on. When I wasn’t writing short pithy detailed descriptions for Groupon, I wrote small editorial pieces for any publication the editor would give me a chance, namely Quip Magazine, where I wrote very short musings on film. Then IndieWire, Filmmaker Magazine, Hazlitt. I slowly started to build my portfolio in writing because I needed to be eligible for the O1 visa. So that was the beginning of my hustle, to live in America, and I didn’t look back.
I also had two manuscripts that weren’t fully formed books (How To Cure A Ghost and Like A Bird) but were works I was tending to, so from the ages of 23 to 27 I lived in Montreal, fine-tuning my writing skills, so that I could eventually move back to the US. The American dream felt far, but I knew if I could make my name in America, I might have a chance to do what I so desperately wanted to do for real—write. As in, be a writer and make an actual living from it. I didn’t have connections or a university degree to get me through the door, so I needed to be exceptional at what I did.
Back when I was a younger writer, if I’d make $50 on a piece I felt impossibly smart for 5 seconds until I’d have to hustle for the next job again. The routine of rejected pitches, or those lack of replies, threads that led to nowhere, taught me a lot about rejection. It helped me get better at my craft.
So much of my life has been a charade of trying to pretend I had more money and more accolades to hide the shame of being a nobody from nowhere trying to be a somebody from somewhere. How much I’ve written is a testament to that — I’ve worked so hard in my career because I have always felt that I had everything to prove. Things never came easily to me, and so through my own traumatic retention, the painful narrative I’ve no doubt recycled in my mind, is that I am not enough and therefore I have to always keep trying harder than everyone else. I’ve kept working and working, hoping it would give me the security and stability I so desperately seek... but financial stability still, at 33, feels far away.
Anyway, I digress. Back to Healthyish. I was told that there was no rate, and that was that, but I decided I’d do the panel anyway. For exposure.
Then, when I talked to two other friends who were also doing the panel (and, it should be noted, who were far more successful than me), I realized I had been lied to by the editor because both my friends were getting paid. It was humiliating but it was also the first time in my professional life I said something, I stood up for myself. I confronted the editors, who acknowledged what had happened and apologized (and tried to rectify things in their own way) but I was so angry, so embarrassed. I felt like it was a reflection of my unworthiness.
This was just five years ago.
I love talking about how much money I make because it’s such a fallacy that if you make art you have to come from money or that if you make art you have to make money—because sometimes, even if you’re very known, or even seen or read as “successful”, like the TLC explains video above, you still might be broke… and it’s a real fucking struggle that is steeped in immigrant guilt for me. Zeba and I talk about this often. We’re not the same, we’ve had very different lives, but there are these strange coincidences and parallels in how we’ve come up in our lives, and therefore even the writing world, together. We both have had successful books, and I would say are respected, we even currently have popping social media presences (lol), and yet… we both often find ourselves broke.
After last year's plenty of criticism over working with brands, I decided to stay away from brand work this year and do more community-driven work. I’ve been teaching more (please take my class!) and trying to bring my work to new places, but really my main source of income is this newsletter, which I’m immensely grateful for, but the situation of money is still tenuous. It’s not enough money but it’s my most reliable income, so I can’t complain. So I’m finding other ways to supplement, like speaking and working with smaller communities has been immensely healing, and I’ve been trying to honor the slower kind of necessary work. Yet this is also the work that can’t necessarily pay for much more than what is necessary, and living has become so expensive. The inflation is insane! Why is an oat latte $8? How are we expected to live like this? I’m nervous, often, about how I’m going to sustainably care for myself when caring for myself is so expensive. So I’m cutting costs, I’m taking a break from therapy, and trying to focus on my body instead. I’m moving more, going out into the Earth more. But everything else costs money and I’m feeling it this year. I’m feeling the discomfort of monetary flux, the recession, and imposed restrictions. And I’m pausing and just observing all of the feelings of shame, disappointment and sadness that come up alongside that.
I’m finally realizing writing might never pay me the money I need or want, and I’m wondering what kind of work I want to make regardless. Because, I’m sure there will be good years and bad years, but these days I’m accepting that even if I can make 60,000 a year from writing, then I’ll be OK, then that should sustain me—but there are some years, like this year, that even that feels hard to make.
People ask me all this time, and I think it’s important to talk about, but what are realistic salaries for a writer? I started writing “professionally” at 21, but before the age of 28, I probably made 15,000-$20,000 a year, tops. I got by because I lived in Montreal for a few years in my early twenties and so I was able to live like this, but when I moved to NY six years ago, there was all of a sudden a financial imperative, as well as immigration requirements (to be on the exceptional visa, you have to prove you’re exceptional otherwise they’ll kick you out) so I felt the pressure to perform in ways that felt unnatural to my nervous system.
Then in 2018, I sold three books — How To Cure A Ghost (for $40K); Being In Your Body (for $10K); and Like A Bird (for $2K) and that changed everything. The same year, I also got a full-time column at my acupuncturist’s office that gave me free treatments AND paid me $1/ a word for a monthly column… and suddenly my entire framework for making money changed. Shout out to Garden Acupuncture! They changed my life for two years. But in no way shape or form, have I had a linear life as a writer. I wish that one experience, one job, one book, would change the course of my life forever (I mean, I’m still hoping) but these days I’m also being realistic.
The frustration is when people think you’re rich or “made it” and they don’t track all the work it took to get anywhere. I talk about this with my friends who had to make it by themselves all the time (add in intense and dangerous family trauma) and it’s sad because when you succeed at anything, people abandon you for various reasons and I saw that myself. I saw the moment I started to get “successful” (or what was read as such, so like IG followers) there were many people around me who couldn’t comprehend my day-to-day life or the reality, and I just became a projection. Even though I hadn’t even achieved, by my own industry’s standard, real success and yet that never stopped me from making work. My wherewithal to make my dreams happen for myself has been my greatest strength. Because I don’t have a family to fall back on, so no matter what, I had to find a way to write to an audience that cared or was curious enough to invest in me, and I’m really fucking grateful, that against all odds, God has continued to grant me this gift. I’m grateful for all of you who read me.
But there are good years and there are harder years, and this year was a harder year for sure. I decided, last year I needed to rest after Who Is Wellness For? came out, so I spoilt myself a little and made a little bit more money working for brands, so I could indulge (go to Bali, do Panchakarma, get physical therapy) but this year I’ve felt less inclined to do anything and have only wanted to maintain service-oriented work, but that also comes with a personal sacrifice that most people will never acknowledge. But even with that, I know I will yo-yo, some years I will require extra care and other years I’ll require less… It’s all about maintaining an equilibrium so I can continue doing this without burning myself out.
In a world destined to want more always, it’s important to recognize that there is value in slowing down and accepting what you have and what is there. Being in DegrowthNYC has taught me so much about this, about consumption, and about greed. How do we de-tether ourselves from wanting more all the time? Sure, there’s a fine line, too, because so many of us have been historically oppressed and there’s a very real desire for justice, for getting what you deserve… so these days I’m wondering how to honor both these sides of me, these contradictions that exist inside of me. The side that wants justice for myself, and is hungry to consume and be fed, but the side that wants to live in accordance with the Earth and in sacred reciprocity.
My trauma therapist and I, before I went on a break, had a session about money. She told me again and again, “You’re being too hard on yourself, stop calling yourself an idiot.” LOL. I’ve been having a lot of money shame recently, because I’m back at the paycheck to paycheck living, hanging by a thread for those direst deposits to come in. I’m embarrassed that I spent all the money I made last year and I have no savings. I’m living off my taxes again (no judgment) and I’m waiting, praying, hoping, clawing, that these next few projects I have in the works will pay me well so that I can live comfortably for the next few years without having to exhaust myself.
Through Venus retrograde, I’ve seen how tied my emotions are to spending. I love food, I love wine, I love buying myself and people I love gifts. Money goes by so fast and I’ve always spent it just as fast as it sometimes came. I don’t have good money habits, but I’m building them slowly, surely. This year I got my first real credit card and it was the first year I built credit, so now I have credit score. Insane. Being raised by a Socialist/Marxist meant I was literally taught nothing about money. That’s the real T! So, I’m 33 and I just got my first proper accountant, and I’m healing these wounds. Capitalism is bad, the exploitation of money is bad, but money — I had to learn — is powerful and important, and you can heal your relationship with it. I’ve been so scared to make any money in my life because I’ve felt nervous that it would make me a bad person, so I’ve diluted my ability to make money, I self-sabotaged again and again. But the reality is if I did do brand work… I’d be rich. So it’s the concerted effort of knowing I am worthy of making money ethically to take care of myself, and that I can be trusted with money to take care of others and redistribute when I make any, but I have to also choose and standby how I make money.
I guess this is where I’ve landed. I don’t need to exploit myself to work and I can trust that there is a world that’s near where my needs will be met and I will be fed and revered and respected and that my work will be rewarded what it deserves. In small ways, that happens all the time. I’m trusting that today.
This year has been a weird one, I’ve lived so much of it from this panopticon view of just observing and seeing what comes to me, what feels natural, good, and aligned. I trust that. It feels good to trust, and in that feeling, I’m realizing I’m breaking a cycle. A real cycle that’s stuck very deep inside me, weaved through me by my ancestors. I’m letting go of their vast baggage and looking toward my own horizons. They did all that they knew how to do. The same goes for anyone who has failed me, or who I have failed. We can only meet others so far as we have met ourselves.
I’m seeing value in the skills I’m learning that aren’t monetarily based — the life skills, the wisdom, the impact of a shifting internal ecosystem. I’m letting go of my ancestors’ grief and anxiety and their limitations, I’m liberating myself from the overwhelming expectations of others and I’m just allowing myself to be. I am trusting that I am a person worth trusting and I’m doing the work continuously to become that person. Even if others can’t understand my actions, I know I have my own internal compass that I must honor. This is work my ancestors could never do — to find their own life force, their own voices, their own convictions. Surprisingly, I saw this in my father. One of the most honest and honorable men I’ve ever met in my entire life. So there’s a blueprint. But even he was weak in his own ways, he betrayed both his daughters by failing to protect us; both things can be true. Life is weird like that.
Above all, I am grateful for this life, and this feeling is priceless. So today the work feels easier and gentler. I’m tired of reprimanding myself for not making more money, but I also understand that it’s the weird extractive system I exist in that doesn’t honor the work I do, either. A perfect example of this that I was thinking of today was the talk I did at the Brooklyn Museum this year, a talk attended by over 300 people, I got paid $500 to speak. It was an incredible experience nonetheless, but it’s not livable, yet it is my reality, so I want to let go of the frustrations and the annoyances and understand that nothing is stagnant, and things can change so fast.
Last night, I did an incredible panel with four other South Asian panelists and we talked about casteism, classism, anti-Blackness and how to heal when harm continues to happen and occur within our communities. It’s maybe one of the most nurturing conversations I’ve ever had, and even though I made no money for the panel itself, it fed me in a way I couldn’t have comprehended. I sold eight copies of Who Is Wellness For? and signed each book and that felt weirdly satisfying, I can’t really explain it. I guess I’m understanding that the work I’m doing is significant in its own right, and money may never reflect the importance of it, but it’s still immensely valuable, and I can call it in, but I don’t have to berate myself when I’m not where I want to be. It’s not a consolation prize, it’s just a reframing and a remembrance, above all, of gratitude.
Thank you for reading me today, dear reader.
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How To Cure A Ghost is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.