Writing with the power of panic

I think I’ll need somewhere between five and ten good quality ebooks for sale before I stand a chance of really making a living from it.

Bearing in mind that my idea of “making a living” is pretty frugal. Last time I checked, my family of three was living quite comfortably on what the OECD considers the poverty-line for a single adult in Australia.

But as my son gets bigger I’m starting to feel the need for a bigger place to live. He won’t fit in that cardboard box forever.

So while it was exciting to publish my first ebook recently, it’s really only the start. I’ve arbitrarily set myself a June deadline for the first draft of the sequel to To Create a World. If I write 1,000 words a day that will give me about 75,000 words, but I’m expecting the sequel to be bigger than the original, so I’m counting on passing my word-count more days than not.

That’s a lot to write. I won’t get there without making a major effort, and this realisation has done something to my mind.

With my first book, I took my time. I wanted it to be right at each stage. The first draft felt right, right up until the moment my wife finished reading it and paused a long, long time before giving her opinion.  In the end To Create a World took seven drafts to complete. Some were minor fixes, others were major additions or rewrites.

So this time I’m not waiting to see if it feels right when I write. Instead, I’m using my panic over the looming deadline to keep me focused, and my knowledge that rewrites are inevitable to keep me relaxed.

It’s finally making sense why people say not to edit until you’ve finished. If I stop now, I’ll never get it done.

The literal deadline doesn’t matter too much. It’s just there to give me something to strive towards. If the story stretches the draft out to 100,000 or more I’ll keep going until it’s done. But I can’t afford to slow down or dawdle. Even when the sequel is finished, I won’t be.

While you’re waiting for me to finish, read my debut novel To Create a World. I’ve pitched it at middle-grade readers, but so far the majority of people who’ve read it (and enjoyed it) have been adults. I’m sure that’s something I’ll have to rethink in future.

We are all rich men now

My latest piece on MercatorNet examines how our consumer culture has fostered our love-hate relationship with money.

Most of us do not consider ourselves rich – we still have to work, after all – but consumerism has made us similar to the rich in our dependence on money, on wealth, for meeting our own needs. We may not be rich relative to the billionaires and multi-millionaires, but we are just as dependent on money as they are. Consumerism has given us the rich man’s dependence on wealth without his corresponding freedom from work.

Serving two masters

Having a smaller, less stable income these days has left me newly appreciative of certain biblical passages:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Money too is more than food and clothing, and as such I think it gives us a sense of security and sufficiency that inhibits our sensitivity to providence.  Why should we ‘trust in God’ when we have permanent employment and a guaranteed income?

This balance between material security and spiritual dependence is complex, as demonstrated by the contending interpretations of the beatitude of the ‘poor in spirit’, and the story of the rich young man who went away sad.

It’s not wealth per se that is the problem, but our devotion to it over and above higher things; allowing it to dominate our lives and our minds.  At times it can be hard to tell whether we are the masters of wealth or the slaves, driven by financial imperatives with nothing higher to intervene or change our minds.

I think this is the significance of my decision not to follow the financial imperative back into mediocre employment for the sake of a reliable income and the sense of security and sufficiency it affords.  The decision to cease compromising my integrity for the sake of money means acknowledging something higher than my income in a society where a high income is more often than not the summum bonum.

Your money, or your life?

My latest article at Mercatornet.com looks at the distinction between artificial wealth and natural wealth, and how our increasing dependence on money may be distorting our enjoyment of life.

In our minds only the very rich love money, since only the very rich have enough of it to relax, sit back, and think happy thoughts about their bank balances and net worth. We do not think of ourselves as lovers of money, but we are nonetheless, nearly to a man, devoted to the getting, the storing, and the increasing of our share. We may not feel that we love money, but we are, like respectable men of a past era, intent on doing the right thing by it. And for nearly all of us the right thing is to chase money, accumulate money, loyally devote ourselves to the earning and the increasing of our monetary wealth.

 

The end of employment and a new path

Lately I’ve been considering the prospect of never being employed again. I don’t mean never working – I’m working more than I ever did as an employee.  But there’s a reasonable likelihood that I will never again need to don the clothes, the attitude, the soul-crushing alienation and the corresponding facade of a white-collar employee who sacrifices his freedom for the sake of a steady income.

The term ‘wage-slave’ is dramatic but fitting.  We live in an era where the average wage is far more than enough to meet one’s daily needs in terms of food and clothing, but nowhere near enough to afford the equally basic need of shelter – a piece of land and a roof over one’s head, a place to raise a family and explore the many and varied means of enriching one’s life.

In my city the median house price reportedly reached $400,000 this year, with the median household income (2011) at $57,356.  $57,000 can buy a hell of a lot of food, clothing, electricity, water, and transport.  But even if you spend the first few years of working life at home, sponging off your parents, at best you’ll only come out of it with a healthy deposit for your imminent mortgage.

The idea of going to live far from the city in some kind of self-sufficient paradise is equal parts dream and nightmare depending on how I’m feeling at any given moment.  But in principle we shouldn’t have to flee the city, or rather, flee the boundaries of costly real estate, in order to meet the basic need of shelter.

More importantly, self-sufficient isolation would undermine other basic needs: friendship, family, and society (in the broadest sense).  I could much more easily achieve self-sufficiency by abandoning my wife and child and learning to eat tree bark, but most people understand that making those kinds of sacrifices defeats the purpose of trying to meet our basic needs in the first place.

My wife and I currently live with our child in a small 1 bedroom apartment, close to family and friends.  As much as we would love to own a small acreage in the hills, it has become abundantly clear that achieving such a goal requires the sacrifice of too much personal integrity – effectively embracing the ‘wage-slave’ existence for however many years it takes to pay off a mortgage debt.  It would mean harming life in the present for the sake of an untested future goal, a goal that might never be what we hope, or might come too late, or might be rejected for some yet unforeseen circumstance.

Instead, we’ve decided to take the path that arises out of enjoyment of our present circumstances which are, after all, pretty good in a global context.  Since we can’t predict the future but have enough at present, we should focus on what we do have rather than what we hope to one day achieve or possess.

Abandoning employment – meaningless work according to the small-minded conventions of our present era – I’m intent on following instead the ideals that have always made greater sense to me, even if those ideals mean temporary sacrifices or more diligent choices.  Diligence and the sacrifice of unnecessary things never hurt anyone, and most of it we won’t even notice.  What we get in return is a life that is open and responsive to the development of a new path and new directions; a life that is increasingly free from the limitations of dry convention.

It’s exciting to think that I may never again need to lock myself into a compromised career path, never again pretend to be interested in the banalities of ‘making a living’ within the increasingly narrow band of jobs for which my experience and qualifications happen to be not so much suitable as least unsuitable.

The true significance hasn’t yet sunk in; I find it hard to fully appreciate what I’m doing, perhaps because our society doesn’t yet recognise or have the right terms for what I’m doing, which suggests to me that I really am on the right path.

Home-brewed beer

beer

All credit to my good friend J for getting me started on brewing, lending us gear, and I would say “teaching me everything I know” but that’s what they call damning with faint praise. J is currently on what appears to be a beer-research sabbatical in North America, from whence he reports on a bewildering array of brews the likes of which the impoverished Aussie beer-consumer could only imagine.

Today I brewed my third all grain beer on the front porch of my unit, with several visitors coming to watch, drink home-roasted coffee, and reflect in equal measures on the sheer excitement of producing something of value for oneself, and the comparatively dismal state of typical working life à la the previous post’s satirical take on bullshit jobs, wage slavery, and consumerism.

The first two brews were done with a small group of us sharing the work and the product.  It’s a good group activity but I’ve realised I need to go it alone in my own time if I’m ever to achieve a stockpile of delicious beer.

Having a stockpile is important. Not only does it offer a sense of material security to know that you have a pantry full of coffee beans, beer, tomato sauce, and so on, but it also allows a kind of natural rhythm to emerge in the balance of work and enjoyment, process and product.  We’re so used to commercial models in which output must be consistent, constant, and always striving for new markets and new thresholds. But when you are producing for your own consumption you discover the pleasant and comforting reality of ‘enough’.

When I’m roasting coffee, I only have to put in half an hour of work to give me enough coffee for up to two weeks.  Half an hour of roasting is fun.  To do it every day would be tedious.  To be commercially viable I would have to invest in an expensive piece of equipment that takes away all the mystery, the human element, and hence the fun.  To make it ‘professional’ would ruin the process, break up the rhythm, and take time away from other things.

I think brewing will turn out to have its own rhythm.  It’s a longer process, requiring about 5-6 hours and a minimum of 4 weeks from brewing to drinking, but it also provides a greater yield, with about 22 litres of beer from each brew.  As with the home-roasted coffee, the home-brewed all grain beer is very high quality relative to commercial products, but at a significantly lower cost.

Coopers Pale Ale – the primary local beer – retails for $42.95 per carton (9 litres).

Prancing Pony Pale Ale – a good local craft beer – retails from $75.99 per carton (7.9 litres)

Both are good beers, but I’d rather drink my home-brewed Golden Ale than the Coopers Pale.  The monetary cost of the home-brewed Golden Ale is about $30 for 22 litres.

Obviously it costs more in terms of time and effort, but in line with my goal of ‘a richer life on a lower income’, home-brewed all grain beer is far more rewarding, productive and enjoyable than buying beer with money earned in a pointless, existentially demeaning job.  Spending time and effort in a valued, productive enterprise doesn’t feel like a ‘cost’ after all.

Canaries in the coal-mine

I’ve discussed this idea with my melancholic relatives and friends, and was hence pleasantly surprised to see the ‘canaries’ theme appear on the blog of ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘.

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme draws on the MBTI theory in his observation that:

NFs are like the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever they are not happy, things are bound to change. Therefore NTs should not only solve the present personal finance problems but try to predict and plan for the future that the present will transform itself into given the interhuman tension. If history is any guide things will look much different fifty years from now just like they looked quite different 50 years ago.

In comments a reader asks “what are the NFs not happy about right now?”

As a melancholic/INFP unhappiness is pretty much my stock-in-trade, so here goes:

Melancholics are idealists, and as such the most dissatisfying thing about our present socio-economic conventions (at least in Australia) is the growth of a mundane economic mindset which leaves little space for ideals.

Melancholics are motivated by ideals – we are not motivated by ambition, material wealth, popularity, or ‘what everyone else is doing’.  So it is demoralising for us to find that merely existing in society on a basically equitable level requires a life dedicated to the dull, self-serving materialism of the masses.

In practical terms, pursuing a basic ideal like ‘independence’ seems impossible unless we first obtain some form of hateful employment that pays far more money than we need to simply survive, but not enough to achieve meaningful independence.

Most of the melancholics I know are liberal arts majors (like me) who pursued their degrees under the influence of our idealistic temperaments and without much consideration to future employment.  There’s nothing to complain about in that, but now we find post-graduation that all the traditional avenues of employment for people like us are being squeezed.

Thirty years ago I probably would have gone on to do teaching.  Teaching can be viewed in an idealistic light, but nearly every teacher or former teacher I have spoken to has warned against it.  ‘Teaching’ itself is not the problem, it’s all the associated crap that goes on under the auspices of a seemingly dysfunctional education system.

Academia is likewise being squeezed under new models and domineering management structures that are turning universities into big business.  If we were to inquire about the nature of the ideal university, it would surely begin with wise and exemplary scholars in their various specialised disciplines.  Yet in the modern university the scholars are increasingly reduced to low-tier employees and service-providers, forced to play along with the narrow mercenary attitudes of non-idealistic managers.

The conventional avenues for aspiring idealists are approaching their end.  We’ve arrived at a point in which excelling at these supposedly ‘idealistic’ pursuits requires a non-idealistic frame of mind.  In other words, there’s no room for idealists anymore.

I’m sure this has happened many times in the past; it’s no doubt cyclical. But the important thing for melancholic idealists is to be able to recognise what part of the cycle we are in.  Concepts like ERE are vital and necessary as idealists begin to search for a way of life that is not entirely soul-destroying.  Money is always going to be an important part of life, but our relationship with money needn’t proceed according to social and economic conventions that crush, demoralise, and dismay us.

Recognising ourselves as canaries in the coal mine (or as dtcwee put it: the thin end of the wedge; or tip of the spear) affirms our sense that there is something deeply amiss in the way of life society would have us embrace.  There is something deeply offensive in donning the corporate guise with all its accompanying shallowness, politics, and insincere rhetoric.  There is something incredibly ugly about a society whose labour and institutions are increasingly stripped of any higher considerations than the self-interested and anxious pursuit of material wealth.

Why should I subordinate myself to a feckless and banal corporate structure, a management hierarchy comprised of people whose motives and ethics are at worst malicious and at best only benignly self-interested? Why should I submit myself to shallow conventions of language and an incorrigible corporate facade that exists seemingly just for the sake of preserving a coercive deception that this dysfunctional organisation is one big happy family?

If I have to sacrifice something, I would rather it be material wealth than personal integrity.

 

Anywhere but there

It’s unusual to not value money; it’s definitely counter-cultural, and those of us who aren’t greatly moved by the thought of cold hard cash tend to feel foolish and apologetic, as though not valuing money is a shameful secret.

When I was young I told our elderly neighbour I didn’t really need money. She thought that was hilarious, and years later I was in full agreement, having discovered the limiting realities of not-being-rich.

The need to make money and to make as much as you can while you still can, verges on secular dogma.  It’s the heart of our contemporary faith in the power of money; what Christians used to call ‘Mammon’ before the ‘prosperity gospel’ movement began telling people that God wanted us to be wealthy.

I put up with an awful farce of a job for two years because it would have been irresponsible and unreasonable to turn down relatively well-paid employment.  No matter how bad it got, I had to stick with it because turning down ‘good money’ for no good reason is anathema in this society.

It only occurred to me near the end of my employment that I wasn’t really suited to this religion of money.  I find money quite boring.  I’m not strongly motivated by it, and I resent the fact that those of us who are motivated by ideals rather than paychecks have been so marginalised that we end up thinking we are the problem.

I used to wish I could be more ‘business-minded’ so I could get along better in life, but my experience with business has shown me that it’s not any particular skill-set I’m lacking – there are plenty of people riding the coat-tails of big business without the distinction of any outstanding set of skills.  It’s not something I’m lacking, it’s something I have. What I have is an unwillingness to further compromise myself in order to get along.  I don’t love money enough to sacrifice my integrity for it, doing the kinds of bullshit jobs for which my studies in philosophy, history, politics, and my experience in bioethics ‘qualify’ me.  As the author of the ‘bullshit jobs’ essay, anthropologist David Graeber writes:

“There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?”

I wonder how many people realise that their jobs should not exist, or that substantial portions of their daily work serve no purpose and are of no real benefit to anyone?  It’s demoralising and demeaning to find oneself in such a position; but why do we endure it?

Part of the answer is cultural: we’ve been conditioned to think that we must have a career, be heading somewhere, be earning as much as we reasonably can for our age and station.  At the same time we can’t even imagine that there might be alternatives – alternatives that won’t see us worn ragged in some vain attempt at total self-sufficiency, or regretting our poverty at an advanced age when it is far too late to do anything about it.

The ‘all or nothing’ mentality is compounded by the cost of basic necessities, in particular the land that one might need in order to eke out an existence.  In Australia the cost of land anywhere in or near the major cities is prohibitive.  House prices have dramatically increased relative to wages, and most people opt for the established convention of seeking a substantial income to service an even more substantial mortgage.

The thought of leaving the major cities is tempting, but though the land may be cheaper, the cost in terms of family and friends makes the price even higher.  And there’s something a little perverse in sacrificing one’s most meaningful relationships to save money; that’s not the kind of victory I’m interested in.

I lost my job a few months ago, and have since been seriously examining and working towards the prospect of never again ending up in another ‘bullshit job’.  Looking back, I can see that my greatest weakness has been the ‘all or nothing’ mentality.  For example, I had previously ruled out the prospect of ‘making a living’ as a freelance writer, because I knew I couldn’t replace my previous income from the kind of writing I do.  In my mind it had to be a comparable income, or it wouldn’t be viable.

This attitude kept me from making even the simplest effort to calculate my family’s cost of living – our annual expenses on a weekly basis.  I had no idea how much money my wife and I needed to make in order to survive.

I’ve since discovered that what we need is a lot less than what I was making in my former job, because of a characteristic that has turned out to be our greatest strength in this new adventure: our lifestyle is not expensive.  We are willing to make sacrifices, but the fact is that we don’t even miss the things that others would regard as ‘sacrifices’.  Our ideals and our interests are heavily weighted toward knowledge and skills that we can acquire and develop on our own.  Our lives would undoubtedly be boring to most of the people trapped in the ‘rat race’ of consumer culture; and that is their handicap and our great advantage.

We poor, marginalised and alienated idealists need to stop apologising for our ‘useless’ degrees, interests and ideals.  We need to drop the false ‘all or nothing’ dichotomy that pushes us towards soul-crushing employment in typically inane ‘bullshit jobs’.  We need to take some solace in the words of Pierre Ryckmans:

The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser.

In retrospect I’m glad I didn’t quit that BS job, because it took an experience of such ineptitude and banality to clarify and sharpen my vision of where I want to be, starting with “anywhere but there”.

 

Home-roasted coffee

coffee1

I’ve bean busy…

With due credit to my brother and his wife for getting me started on this project…

I’ve been roasting my own coffee beans for almost a year now.  The procedure is very simple, and achieves the ideal of a high-quality product at far below the market cost.  I can spend 30-45mins roasting beans once every week or two weeks, and enjoy the satisfaction, the freedom, and the existential high of producing my own great-tasting coffee.

Instead of spending as much as $36/kg on fresh, good quality beans, I order green beans online for about $15/kg, including postage.  I roast the beans outdoors in small batches, in a pair of $12-15 popcorn machines.  There are plenty of other ways to roast coffee, and lots of ways to modify the ‘poppers’ for greater control and consistency, but I’m happy thus far with this entry-level approach, and you can read more about it here:

http://www.sweetmarias.com/airpop/airpopmethod.php

In practical terms I’m yet to find a downside to roasting my own coffee at home.  It has become my favourite example of pushing back a little against a purely consumerist lifestyle, and producing something of value for one’s own benefit.

It’s likewise an example of my broader theme of ‘richer on a lower income’, as my family moves slowly toward an improved quality of life on a much reduced income.

How many other things could we produce – not for the sake of self-sufficiency, but for the sake of enjoying higher quality products without having to spend more hours in a meaningless job just to pay for them?  How much autonomy could we regain by having in our own skills and possessions the ability to produce rather than merely consume?  How much more fulfilling is a life spent cultivating the knowledge and sufficiency that past generations took for granted, and which we have all but abandoned?

This tiny step of making (and then drinking) my own coffee is pure inspiration.  It symbolises knowledge, freedom, power, wealth, and principle.  It points the way to a better life in which we can break the ruling conventions of 9-5 jobs and supermarket trolleys.

This isn’t about self-sufficiency in the most literal and demanding sense, nor are we about to dig a bomb-shelter, stockpile weapons, or form a fringe religious cult (coffee-cult, maybe).  It fundamentally is not about making life more difficult, onerous, or weird.  Rather, it’s about the kinds of improvements that would be common-sense if so many of us weren’t alienated and estranged by the demands of mainstream employment, and a culture increasingly dependent on a false dichotomy of career and consumption.

 

 

A richer life on a lower income

Step 1: My home-roasted coffee

I’ve often thought about becoming a professional freelance writer, but never thought I could earn enough to replace or even approach my previous income.

But what if I didn’t need to replace my previous income? What if I was to reject the financial imperative that says “make as much money as you can for as long as you can regardless of the cost”?

Because the cost has been pretty high. My experience of business has shown it to be a surprisingly shallow, unaccountable, egotistical and dysfunctional place, with an ethos inimical to the values and ideals I’ve cultivated for much of my life. Anecdotal evidence suggests my experience has not been unusual.

The cost of finding a similar role, of enduring further wasting of my skills and my time, makes the higher income look like a pretty bad deal. By contrast, the freedom and integrity of being a writer makes my much diminished income seem much more attractive.

I’m currently a part-time Phd Student, a part-time writer, and a part-time stay-at-home dad; and I’m adding to the mix a theme I’m calling ‘Richer on a lower income’: an idea that encompasses not only the sheer relief in transitioning from a pointless office job – one of David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs‘ – to a far more meaningful career, but also the various ways in which a lower income lifestyle turns out to be far richer than a higher income one that is constrained by the limitations of working life and the ultimately unsatisfying distractions of consumer culture.

In practice it means pushing back against a strictly consumerist way of life, producing more and consuming less. It means learning to live on a significantly smaller income, but being open to different streams of income rather than being tied to a single wage.

As time goes on I’ll be updating you on the experiences and data, the sacrifices and the achievements as we see what life can look like when we step away from pointless conventions and follow our ideals.