A couple of weeks ago, The Bold Italic ran a personal essay by Rebecca Pederson about trading in her dream of being a writer for a job at a tech start-up. As someone who moved to San Francisco with the same dream, and who hasn't yet let that dream go, I wanted to provide an alternate perspective.
I came to San Francisco for an MFA in writing. With its legacy of dreamers, iconoclasts, and queers, this city was the perfect place for me. It was home to the Beats and the landscape that inspired Richard Brautigan, a literary soul mate of mine. It was a place I knew I could be free to discover the kind of writer I wanted to be. I had lived in New York several times, but the cutthroat pace and emphasis on publishing stifled my creativity. I wanted to be in a place where I could explore the question that had been weighing on my mind: Is it possible to become an adult without surrendering wonder? I figured if the answer was yes, I could find it in this glorious picture-postcard of a city.
East Coast transplants often complain of the Peter Pan syndrome in San Francisco. As for me, I delighted in the childlike ways of the city. I lucked out moving into a rent-controlled apartment in North Beach. I went to school during the day and waited tables at night. I fell in love hard and fast with the city. My off-hours were spent reading and writing in parks. I drank coffee at Trieste where Jack Hirschman – the milk foam dripping from his walrus mustache – would sell his peace papers. Days were whiled away walking the city’s rolling streets, daydreaming about the future, and constructing sentences in my head. I suppose I could have been working harder toward a career, but I wouldn’t trade those glorious hours of freedom, then or now. As Joni Mitchell said, I was “unfettered and alive.” While some people mock that as lazy, I believe that time spent making art, even time spent daydreaming, is of value and cannot and should not be commodified.
And then the inevitable arrived: I graduated and faced a more sobering reality of looming student loans and credit card debt, and not many opportunities to put my two master’s degrees in writing and literature toward stable employment, lucrative or otherwise. Prospects were bleak. Even the non-soul-sucking jobs I was qualified for were swamped with applicants and hardly paid a living wage. That’s when I fell prey to the idea that I should get a “real job.” So I worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency. They like to call those places “creative studios” for a reason, mostly because many of the legitimately creative people employed there need the psychological framework to shield them from the reality of corporate work. I didn’t last long in the 60-hour workweek environment. As soon as the insomnia and anxiety kicked in, I swiftly returned to my hodgepodge income-generating lifestyle that allowed me the freedom to invest most of my love into my art and community.
With its legacy of dreamers, iconoclasts, and queers, this city was the perfect place for me
Time spent making art, even time spent daydreaming, is of value and cannot and should not be commodified
The reality of life is that we need money to survive. And being a writer, even a successful one, hardly pays enough to live in San Francisco. Life as an artist means many sacrifices. It means that I may not have housing stability or health insurance. I may never be able to afford to raise children. There are days I can't buy food, and those days are miserable. If my computer crashes it will be a while before I can afford a new one. The rental market is crazier than ever, and eviction notices are at a 12-year high. I’ve chosen to pursue a path of freelance employment, which often leaves me teetering on the edge, both financially and emotionally. The upside? I don’t have a boss, and I can travel and structure my days in ways that work for me. Every choice has its pros and cons, and I would never judge someone for trading in their dream of being a writer for a full-time job with benefits.
One of the sad truths about capitalism is that it seduces us into conflating income with self-worth. There’s an anecdote I often refer to. A visitor from Spain once asked my friend, “What do you do?” My friend explained that he was a teacher, and the Spaniard said, “No, no. I don’t mean for money. Americans are always answering this question with what they do for money. I meant to ask, what do you do with your living?” There are so many ways to define what makes a life. Unfortunately, most of those definitions revolve around income-generating employment.
Our capitalistic society doesn't place much value on what we do with our off-hours, our time spent volunteering or helping others. Not many of us invest time researching or exploring ideas unless those ideas are part of R&D for a product that could potentially make a profit. But aren’t those things that are not done for profit what make the world great and worth living in? San Francisco has always had a legacy of being a safe haven for radicals, experimentalists, and dreamers, but with the current emphasis on generating money and catering to those who bring in the money, who knows if it will be able to retain the same characteristics that have allowed it to be a home to outsiders, or even to those who grew up here. Many of my friends have left the city because it’s unaffordable. As the Google buses drive workers to Mountain View, some San Francisco residents are being driven away in other ways, sometimes by something as inane as the tyranny of parking tickets.
I think that anyone can and should be able to live in San Francisco. As soon as we deem who is worthy to live in a place, we become dangerous. Unfortunately, it's a tough city to make it in, but the unique pleasure of living here is something I feel so lucky to be a part of; I wish everyone were able to experience it.
The question worth asking is: If more value is placed on working 60 hours a week for a corporation, what happens to peace, righteousness, beauty, truth, and civil service? I myself would rather belong to a community than a company. If that makes me a dreamer, then so be it. I try to keep my dream alive, even when it flickers down to barely a flame. I stoke it at odd hours. I often ask my friends to spare a piece of driftwood to keep it going. It’s my little light and I’m trying my hardest to ensure that it never goes out.
Anyone can and should be able to live in San Francisco
Illustration by Dan Bransfield