Growing Up Poor

Whenever I start to get professional jealousy about some writer who is younger than I am but writes better than I do, or who is younger than I am but has books published (these are sometimes different things), I have to remind myself of one of the realities of my life:

I grew up poor.

It’s a struggle for me to acknowledge it, even as an adult, because I didn’t have a bad childhood.  I had a pretty good childhood when it comes right down to it, and I benefited a lot from loving parents and good public schools.  That doesn’t change that I grew up in a trailer park, that my father was a maintenance man for the trailer park we lived in, and my mother wasn’t employed outside the home, even if I justify it to myself by telling myself things like, well, maybe we didn’t have a lot of money, but we had a wealth of experiences, or maybe we didn’t have a lot of money but we had mom at home growing up.

This has had a direct bearing on why it took me until I was in my mid-twenties to start writing.  Poor kids are told “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up” just like other kids are, but there are undertones that anything doesn’t really mean anything.  There is an attached condition: you can be anything you want to be, but it had better be practical.

Creative pursuits aren’t a viable career option because they aren’t practical.  I was subtly shunted toward practical careers and away from creative pursuits simply by virtue of what my parents nurtured.  I could be anything I wanted, but mom would be proud if I became a teacher or a mechanic.  I could be anything I wanted, but dad was proud that I wanted to join the Army just out of high school (even if in the end they wouldn’t take me because I have asthma).  I was told that maybe if I worked very hard in school and got good scholarships, I could be a doctor or a lawyer (which I did, and still graduated with massive amounts of student loan debt).  That’s more than a lot of kids growing up poor are told, and I really credit my parents for supporting me as I tore up one side of studious and down the other, even if they didn’t understand it.

But like most poor kids, I was never told “if you work hard enough, you can be a writer.”  I’ve always loved reading and writing.  And yet one looked at me and said you could do that, you can learn how, you can make a living at it.  It simply isn’t part of poor culture.

So by the time I decided that not only could I be a writer and not starve, but that I was going to be a writer, it was in some senses too late.  I’d already had my college education, I already have massive amounts of student loan debt.  I certainly can’t afford to go back and get a Bachelor’s in English or an MFA.  I started out in my mid-twenties where some people start in their teens.

I have to remind myself of this when I look at an author picture and think they’re younger than my little sister.  I grew up poor, I started out ten years behind, and smart as I am it’s still going to take me time and work to catch up.  Meanwhile, I’ll keep buying the books of “these kids,” as I think of the younger writers, because I’m glad to support them in making a living at what they love.