The Writing Essentialism Crank

A co-worker recently asked me if I was left-handed. I told the truth (right handed, but left eye dominant so I use my left hand a lot– I have some congenitally weak muscles in my right eye). She said that explained it.

“Explains what?”

“You write. You’re right-brained.”

I explained to her that writing isn’t any less creative than data analysis. I’m not being a contrarian with that. I failed about every math class I took prior to the 10th grade, and was merely okay at math through college. My recent GRE score placed my only in the mid sixtieth percentile for math (as compared to 98th percentile for verbal skills) Accounting and finance, even the data analysis portion of it, has never demanded pre-calc or geometry of me. If I really wanna impress, I might break out Algebra 2– and I’m not dealing with small companies or numbers, that’s just the level of math skills required for what I do. The trick is mostly figuring out which skill to apply to which numbers to meet a certain evidentiary standard. It’s puzzle solving, which I consider a kind of creative work. The way accounts are presented on a balance sheet are communicative; they represent an argument based on the company’s interpretation of the movement of cash or other assets rather than anything objective. In a different year with different challenges ahead of and behind a company, the same activity would be presented very differently. That’s not that different from writing an essay.

She agrees with my premise, but remains skeptical.

A writer wrote an article about a week ago about “How To Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying.” It’s about an author whose first two books sold for $375,000. She assumed future books would bring in that much, and moved to New York to go live like the authors do. One response of many was that writing attracts people with the “worst possible traits” to work in publishing.

Well, here was my route into my day job: I had three boyfriends in a row who asked me to do their taxes. From filling out 1040EZs for manchildren, I got a reputation among our friends as “good” at it (I… read the instructions and followed them?) so I, a working class gal, did a lot of taxes for my working class friends for free just to save them a few bucks. H&R Block is expensive if you make minimum wage.

When I saw an opening for entry level temp work at the IRS, I took that after finishing my first degree in political science. I got that in my mid-twenties right as the recession hit. This job didn’t even require an interview. They need so many warm bodies per year they hire literally everyone without a fraud conviction and let training and on the job performance metrics sort us out. My mother died a couple years after I graduated, followed immediately by my husband becoming disabled, and I realized I needed to double my income or more to make up for being a sole breadwinner. It’s not like I got an inheritance, ma died intestate and in more debt than she had assets. From there, I did a work at my own pace accounting degree in a year (89 credit hours in 12 months, at the beginning of which I didn’t know the accounting formula) while doing a combination of seasonal IRS work and paid internships at local accounting firms to keep the lights on. It was a second degree, so no Pell grants, and I didn’t take out any loans. I lived in a studio apartment and more than half my income went to tuition. That degree and the internships led to a series of positions in oversight. Taa daa, I’ve now audited or analyzed balance sheets for companies and government agencies with billions of dollars in revenues across a couple sectors.

Note I didn’t get… any writing done during this time period? Like, none at all. I didn’t have “me” time for nearly a decade there.

So I get a little irritated at writing essentialism, this idea there is a kind of person who is a writer and that kind of person is only good at certain skills. First, it partially comes from the left brain / right brain dichotomy, which is debunked pseudoscience. Is math my best skill? Absolutely not. It is simply one I had to develop. I’d disclaim that I am immensely privileged to be able to do math, but that feels only technically true. I have several documented learning difficulties that make math very difficult for me. I flip numbers while reading them! My handwriting, especially my numbers, is illegible to me, making using a computer non-optional! I have a small working memory (diagnosed as part of a learning disability), so I lose my place in multi-step procedures if I don’t take copious notes! I have to use additional checks on all of my spreadsheets to make wrong or inconsistent figures stand out to me! And again, the extent to which I am good at accounting is the extent to which it requires only very simple math creatively applied.

I don’t have a hot take on the writer who blew almost 400k. The NFL makes financial courses mandatory for players, and making them at least available to writers feels like a responsibility someone should take on, especially for marginalized writers who don’t have generational wealth and so don’t know what to do with very large sums of money. Someone should teach them what an annuity is. That said, not all “unwise” spending is financial illiteracy. If it’s your dream to go live like a writer from the movies in New York City, if that’s how you want to spend your money, that’s a choice you can make.

I’m leery of pretending that holding onto money is a matter of education and wisdom at all. If you don’t have family, extended family, and friends who carry a debt of medical procedures left undone, medical debt, and insecure housing, you live a different life than I do. I could blow through a hundred thousand on just fixing that, and I wouldn’t feel ashamed of it. And kiddos, half of us will get cancer. Treating that cancer will require cash up front. $400k is wealth and privilege, but you can be that wealthy and do everything perfect in this country and still go into medical bankruptcy. Wealth is not your reward for being good and smart. It’s a combination of luck and power. Wealthy people stay wealthy in part because they can do things like skip out on debts without any recourse for the people who lent them money. If you could do that, you’d be wealthy too.

My hottest take is that if there is anything to the “writers are bad with money” stereotype, it’s a combination most writers being very young and being of a class where they and all their friends can afford H&R Block. Or maybe they have a girlfriend who is cutting into her writing time to fill out some 1040s.

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