How Being Broke (and Taking My Top Off) Made Me a Writer
Deborah E. Kennedy on the Narrative Arc Created by a Lack of Money
The man lived in a stone house across from a historic cemetery in an eerily quiet and strangely dated corner of one of Cincinnati’s funkiest neighborhoods. Climbing the stairs to his front door, I felt the judgmental, ghostly eyes of countless long-dead Catholics boring into my back, seeing through my business casual ensemble to the slutty lingerie underneath. The feeling was at once shameful and titillating, scary and surreal.
About a week prior, I’d answered a tabloid classified ad’s call for models for “artful, erotic photography.” Said photographer and I met up in a coffee shop where he showed me his portfolio. I remember fuzzy, faceless women draped like fabric over chairs and tables, spinning like bare-chested ballerinas in front of open windows, everything gauzy and half-lit and, to my untrained eye, “artful,” whatever that meant.
Now here I was, on a long lunch break from my respectable job as an editor at a theater magazine for high school students, about to pose nearly nude for a stranger.
The fuck was I thinking?
I thought maybe I’d get a story out of it, some much-need inspiration for a stalled (and terrible) novel-in-progress about a young woman in search of herself. My main motivation, though, was money. Easy money. So what if the person paying me looked like a poor man’s Willem Dafoe and slunk around his gloomy, echo-filled house in flimsy black body suits? Who cared if he claimed to have a wife I never saw? It was 2006, I was 30 years old, in the middle of a divorce, and drowning in debt. I was paying for everything I could with my credit card and trying on a new identity—that of the daring, sexually emancipated single girl, a sort of corn-fed Carrie Bradshaw.
It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that a handful of weekly photo sessions would not solve my money troubles. Nor did the pictures the man took of me ever even knock on the lofty door of art. The first week, he dressed me up like Daisy Duke. The next, he asked if he could rub oil on my breasts. The oil would make my skin look otherworldly, he said. Transform me into a Selkie or a (very pale) Amazonian warrior princess. When I asked him about the more subtle photos in his portfolio, when or if I’d ever have a chance to explore my more ethereal side, he told me that wasn’t my style. I was, he said, “more of a terrestrial beauty.” A week later, he sent me a dick pic in the middle of the night, and I abruptly ended our sessions.
I was reminded of my brief time as a Gloria Steinem bunny-era wannabe a few years ago when I came across an anecdote about Ralph Nader, the progressive consumer advocate, and two young women allegedly hired to seduce him in the late sixties. At the time, Nader was enjoying sudden fame thanks to the public’s embrace of Unsafe at Any Speed, his painstakingly researched expose of the Chevy Corvair, while top automotive executives were stewing in fury, having been portrayed by Nader as greedy villains heedless of public health.
Bent on revenge, said execs got together and hatched a Chandler-esque seduction scheme in the hopes of discrediting Nader and ruining his squeaky-clean image. One of the women they hired approached Nader at a drugstore news stand, suggesting he accompany her home to talk philosophy. The other ambushed him on the street, asking if he’d help her move some furniture. Nader, incorruptible to the end, rejected them both. Later, when recounting the awkward meet-cutes, he referred to the women as “the lithesome girls.”
From the moment I read about them, I couldn’t get the lithesome girls out of my head. I kept imagining them in mini-skirts and knee-high boots, batting their eyelashes and pouring it on thick, maybe complimenting Nader on his sideburns or his relentless pursuit of justice. I wondered how they prepped for the failed trysts, if they spent a lot of time on their makeup or backstories, if one speed-read a bunch of Nietzsche the night before or if the other moved her bed across the room in the hopes that a grateful Nader would move it back. What were their daily lives like? Were they really experienced sex workers or simply women down on their luck, looking for a way out of a bind?
In the end, I satisfied my curiosity in the way most novelists do: I channeled it into my latest novel book, Billie Starr’s Book of Sorries, very loosely basing my main character, Jenny Newberg, on one of the lithesome girls. Then I gave my protagonist a young daughter, Billie Starr, an overdue mortgage payment, and a tendency toward magical thinking, the same get-solvent-quick mindset that fails her just as it failed me a decade and a half ago.
I wish I could say I’ve grown wise and financially secure since my nude modeling days, but I still wake up wondering if I’ll be able to pay all my bills on time, and I haven’t stopped doing ill-advised things for money. Before I had my son, I auditioned to be a bikini barista. A few years later, I tried to make a go at it as a U.S. census worker. The struggle, as they say, is real. Not only for an actual job and a good credit but for grace.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen a friend from my MFA program announce their big book deal on Twitter while I contract-write a newsletter on canine anal gland expressions or a piece of clickbait on the tragic real-life story of Loretta Lynn. I am genuinely happy for my friends, but honestly? The phrase “seven-figure book deal” has been so burned into my retinas that when I close my eyes, I swear the letters hover in my vision like skywriting. Or the smoke left by sparklers.
Sometimes when I login to my bank account and fantasize about finding seven, six, five, hell, four figures in there, I recall those two (mostly wonderful) years I spent in my MFA program, when it seemed that the majority of my peers were trust-fund kids, able to live on small, yearly stipends and take unpaid internships at The Paris Review and The New Yorker because money literally was no object. They wrote stories about discontented expats looking for love and discontented Brooklynites lusting after antique furniture that probably cost more than my car, and I felt as if they would never understand where I was coming from or what I was trying to say. Because I was self-pitying and yet again drowning in debt, I confused that feeling with the truth.
The truth was that my classmates did get me, and they were and are doing beautiful work. Good fiction is almost always grounded in want, in hunger and desire and lack and loss, and it doesn’t really matter what the hole is made of or where it comes from. What matters is if the writer is able to get you to care, in your bones, about what’s missing and, by telling a particular story only they can tell, make you feel less alone in the world.
Over time, I’ve learned to view my constant state of broke-i-tude as a peculiar kind of gift. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that it has, in many ways, taught me how to write. Lack of money generates its own narrative arc. It has helped me create characters for whom the stakes couldn’t be higher. Will she or won’t she have her debit card declined on the very day her first book comes out? (She will.) What if she can’t afford diapers? Formula? How many notices have to go out before the electric company turns off the lights? You can’t buy that kind of tension and ready-made conflict. My empty coffers have fed me the very stuff of which stories are made. And my bad decisions have sometimes taken me in the right writing direction. I couldn’t have written Billie Starr’s Book of Sorries without posing for a while in a lithesome girl’s six-inch heels.
I still have one photograph from my time in that dark, creepy house across from the cemetery. It sits at the bottom of a desk drawer under a bunch of owner’s manuals for long-dead appliances. Mr. Artful Dick Pic printed the photograph for me during one of our sessions because, he said, it captured my “regal essence.” It’s true that in the picture I loom somewhat large—the man shot me from below to give me height, to lengthen my stubby legs—but if anything, I look like I’m trying too hard, like I don’t know where the camera is. I look impossibly young and sweaty and lost.
I have so little in common with the woman in the photograph that, even though she has my crooked mouth and weak chin, she feels like a stranger to me. She has no idea what the future has in store, no clue that she will somehow get through that terrible time basically intact, move home to Indiana to take care of her mom, move to Iowa to write, move the rest of the way across the country to meet her match, become a mother herself, and then take care of her mom again, this time for good. What that lost young woman doesn’t know is all over her unlined face, and it will hurt her again and again and again.
The one thing she and I share? A wonky and probably hopelessly naïve belief in the power of stories to fill in the gaps. No matter how bad it gets. No matter how broken it seems. We’ll both still be here, trying to write our way out of it.
Billie Starr’s Book of Sorries by Deborah E. Kennedy is available now via Flatiron Books.