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Cinderella, an awkward encounter with a roofing company and the constraints of necessity.
Who makes the money in your house?
That’s a real question. Think about it.
It might just be you.
It might be you and your partner (if you have one).
It might just be your partner (if you have one).
Or some other option?
What I’m asking is: who provides the money that gives you a measure of freedom to do what you want?
Joel and I both work reasonably well-paying full-time jobs.
That hasn’t always been how it is. When I got married, over ten years ago, I was the one who had to bring home the bacon. My ex-husband (non-native English speaker) was an experienced videojournalist — but he couldn’t get a job in London that he was trained to do.
I had a law degree. It made sense that I should use it to support our little family. After working years for human rights non-profits, the exigencies of my own family overcame all other concerns.
My friends Helen and Richard had a Halloween party on Saturday. I wore suede fringe, flares and flowers in my hair.
I can’t work out if I went as a hippie, masquerading as a corporate lawyer — or a corporate lawyer, who’s really a hippie.
(Spoiler: they amount to the same thing. I know what I am.)
But let’s talk a bit more about day jobs.
Here’s a quote:
I studied Law because I hoped it would give me a good career, and because I was passionate about politics, and law seemed a way in. There were also aspects of law I was passionate about; I still keep an interest in planning law tucked away, like a private vice.
Do you know who said that? A million points if you already know.
It was two-time Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel.
Did you know that Hilary Mantel studied law?
It’s true. She studied law as an undergraduate, just like me. She started at LSE then finished at Sheffield.
I’ve looked into this and it’s interesting to me how many writers were legally trained.
John Grisham. Scott Turow. Harper Lee.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Jules Verne.
Perrault, a lawyer and the author of Cinderella, wrote about living your dreams at night and returning to the day drudge when the clock strikes.
Dickens was a law clerk. Mohsin Hamid graduated from Harvard Law School.
Alexander Hamilton was a lawyer — albeit a writer above all else.
Probably unsurprising, given that law is all about wielding the right words.
Kafka too. He trained as a lawyer and spent years in insurance, assessing worker’s accident compensation claims for loss of a finger or a limb. His father called it his Brotberuf — literally: bread job.
This makes perfect sense to me. It’s your bread-and-butter, it’s what feeds you — even if it doesn’t feed you.
The mass of detail, intricate but not demanding, did not wholly absorb him. After he had found the winning formula, the greater part of his brain lay fallow.
— Mantel (on Georges Danton), A Place Of Greater Safety
This, I know well. Law is what feeds me, even if it doesn’t feed me.
I did the legal practice course en route to qualifying as a lawyer when my son was about a year old, to feed us.
Writing was one of the modules on the course. Literally: how to write well. They drilled us on avoiding double negatives and the passive tense; the difference between effect and affect, discreet and discrete, that sort of thing.
I’d been writing my whole life. I knew that shit already.
Anyway, this has all come to a head — in my head — because I just started Mantel’s blood-soaked opus on the French Revolution. Only fifty pages in, it’s clear that day jobs — and, specifically, legal day jobs — are a big theme.1
Reading about the days leading up to the storming of the Bastille, I’m most struck by how … legal it all is. They were all lawyers and trainee lawyers and barristers and advocates, those revolutionaries: Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre. They were writing pamphlets and arguing in court and delivering judgments. Law is intrinsic to the Revolution.
“Study law. Law is a weapon.”
— Fabre to Georges Danton
The revolution is about bread jobs: the price of a loaf of bread as a proportion of what the unskilled labourer in Paris could hope to earn in a day. When it climbs to 14 sous, for a loaf of stony, black bread, the world falls apart. The revolution is written into existence by “hacks, scribblers, failed lawyers — all those men who profess to hate what they most desire.”
Camille Desmoulins loses in court all the time; he is either “a very bad lawyer” or else “has very hopeless cases”.
He admonishes Danton for not helping people:
“There are a lot of people who need lawyers and can’t afford to pay for them.”
Danton, on the other hand, is the pragmatic counterfoil to Desmoulins’ idealistic zeal. He is the one with his eyes on the material prize: a roof over his head and a cottage in the countryside, eventually.
“That’s a social problem. You’re not responsible for that state of affairs. … A radical opinion is a luxury.”
Eventually, they grow out of the court rooms — and take to the streets.
But the tension between economic survival and moral freedom never slackens.
“Men of letters will be a luxury, let me tell you, in the years to come. We shall all have to work hard, with no diversions.”
— Desmoulins to Annette Duplessis
In the days after the storming of the Bastille, and the torso-bayoneting of De Launay (governor of the prison), shops squeak back open.
Everyone still needs to eat, even as the world bleeds around them.’s Ben Wakeman captured the day job ennui perfectly in his recent piece:
I descend the concrete steps into a windowless basement where my brain will be harnessed to do the bidding of an employer. The kite-flying, worm-digging, fort-making, novel-writing, star-gazing, and song-singing that moved like weather systems through my life will be relegated to fifteen-minute periods like recess.
Another Substacker,shared something he wrote about how you can either write or have a day job — but not both.
He quoted Miller about how anodyne day jobs are, and said this:
Every day my fiancée leaves at 7:30 for work and comes home at 5:30. And every day I do not understand it. I mean I do understand it, of course. But I simultaneously don’t. Just the way I didn’t grasp the morning and evening subway riders going to and returning from work when I lived in Manhattan. The basic routine, the boringness, the sheer ordinariness of it all. On some level this probably speaks to my own immaturity and childishness.
Thank you to all those of you who work “real jobs.” We need you. But we also need writers.
Now, meaning zero disrespect, I’ll be honest. My gut reaction to this when I read it was:
Fuck off. I have a day job but I still write. I am still a writer.
Then, I thought a bit more deeply and went to: false dichotomy. There’s no binary “normal people working day jobs” in one camp and “the writer as loner artist and social outsider” in another.
This is obviously nonsense: see the laundry list of brilliant writers above who worked day jobs. Even the writers Mohr applauds: Jefferson, Lincoln, Obama.
Um, they all had day jobs (pretty important ones, too).
The fact is some writers, like Henry Miller, can luxuriate in being radical, abhorring the quotidian and routine. Others, like Kafka, have to hock a day job.
Writers, like humans, take all shapes.
But then I thought even more about it. And I realised, in a way,is right (or, at least, hovering around an important point) — and here’s why.
It strikes me that Hilary Mantel was fortunate in having had a husband who funded her ability to do nothing but write. She didn’t have to work; she could just … write. She had the luxury of being radical, not working the legal day job she trained for.
Now, this isn’t me having a go at her: I adore Hilary Mantel. She is one of the greatest writers of the last 500 years and I will fight you if you disagree.
But: I think it’s important to acknowledge — as she did — that, to get deep in the weeds of your material, to live it, you need the time and the space to … live it.
Imagine the hours of research to produce the Wolf Hall trilogy; to produce a work as steeped in the terror of revolutionary streets as A Place Of Greater Safety.
It is a full time job.
Which is tricky if you already have a full time job.
Because I can’t just write. I have to work. I write around the edges of my day job — you can see the fruits of it here on the ‘stack — but it isn’t enough.
To write the kind of thing I want to write would take weeks, months of focused research.
Time I don’t have.
All I have are the hours I squeak out between work, dinner and kids’ bedtime, before I pass out.
Living with Joel, now, is the first time in my life that it is even hypothetically possible that I could sit back and let someone else pay the mortgage and bills for awhile, while I have the space and time to write.
But, even as I’m desperate for the time to write, I am so reluctant to give up my hard-earned financial independence.
There’s that tension again.
Morality, like artistry, is constrained by economic necessity — in an indifferent and blood-soaked world.
I wanted to get some insulation put in the roof (stick with me; the story gets better) so I did what we all do: google, click on top link, fill out deets for quote.
I had a call from the company within, no word of a lie, two minutes.
After a joke or two about how I’ve never been contacted so quickly about anything (not even after sharing actual nudes with my actual boyfriend) we got to the meat of it: getting me booked in for a visit to survey and quote properly.
This is where it got interesting.
“Do you live with anyone?”
“Yes, I live with my boyfriend and my son, and my boyfriend’s kids half the time.”
“Ok, we’ll need him to be present for the survey.”
“Because we need to explain it to everyone so that we don’t end up having to come back out to answer questions from the decision maker.”
“I’m the decision maker. You only need to talk to me.”
“Riiight, it’s just company policy, you see. We have to talk to both of you.”
“But why? It’s my house. My boyfriend lives here but it’s my decision. Why do you need my boyfriend — who has no decision making power — to be there?”
“It’s just company policy.”
Ok, bear with me.
It’s not true that Joel has no decision-making power. I love and respect him and think he’s the smartest person I know — so I usually listen to what he has to say.
But this is different.
This is being told that it’s company policy not to talk to the wifey and to make sure the man — the decision maker — is present. So the company doesn’t waste its time.
Do you know how many times I’ve been referred to as Mrs [My Last Name]?
How many times, because my last name is on the architect’s drawings for our kitchen extension, Joel gets assumed to be Mr [My Last Name]?
Even close friends are surprised to hear it’s my house alone.
Now, I’m sharing this story about the roof because I think it touches on an important point.
I can, alone, support myself and my child financially. I can put a roof over our heads and make sure the roof doesn’t have holes in it. I can give us … a place of greater safety.
That puts me in a vanishingly small minority of women in this country; possibly, the world. Clearly, most women need the say-so of the man of the house to do that. Company policy.
Is this financial independence my only contribution to the revolution; my sole radical act?
It’s true there is no man on whom I rely for my roof or my roof insulation — but the flip side is I can’t write all the time. I don’t have the luxury of that radicalism.
There are a lot of good reasons to be a woman who can support herself.
There are also a lot of good reasons why a woman might allow herself to be financially supported (space for the art, time to research and maybe a Booker in due course…?)
If being financially supported gives you the freedom and time to really know your material — and to be able to say something about these blood-soaked streets, in these blood-soaked times, and not just be another privileged woman writing about fashion or yoga or seasonal change — then isn’t that revolutionary too?
I’ve come round to agreeing that maybe, actually, you can’t be a writer and work a day job at the same time.
If you are an artist who doesn’t make enough money from your art to support yourself, you need a wealthy and supportive partner. You need a patron.
Or you need a trust fund.
(did you see this coming?)
If you want to read the book someday, you know what to do…
Actually: 300 pages in as this goes to press. It’s that good.