Sheltering: Michael Arceneaux on Emotional Debt and Keeping Your Joy
The Author of I Don't Want to Die Poor Talks to Maris Kreizman
On this episode of Sheltering, Michael Arceneaux speaks with Maris Kreizman about his recent book of essays, I Don’t Want to Die Poor, which revolve around issues of debt, both financial and emotional, as well as the superficial promise of social mobility in America. Arceneaux talks to Maris about that “Imagine” music video, needing levity in times of darkness, the reality of commercial viability, and how on social media we should all be “posting like Britney Spears.” Please purchase I Don’t Want to Die Poor online from your favorite independent bookstore, or through Bookshop.
From the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Welcome to Sheltering. I’m Maris Kreizman. I’m actually mad at my guest, Michael Arceneaux, for writing a book that is so relevant now that I actually want to vomit. Welcome!
Michael Arceneaux: Thank you. Yes, I’ve heard that quite a bit lately. I will say, I take no comfort in the fact that this book was timely before this, which is why everyone is suffering more than they should be. It’s a nightmare all around. Thank you for having me.
Maris: Tell me how you’re doing overall, which is a really hard question.
Michael: I am well, all things considered. It is not easy to be promoting a book in the middle of a pandemic, particularly at the week that thus far seems to be its worst yet. But at the same time, that is such a unique thing to complain about, so it’s ultimately such a blessing. It’s a weird feeling of recognizing how odd it is to be asking people to buy something at a time like this, but also recognizing that It’s my livelihood. I am functioning, but it’s a lot to deal with. I will say that at the end of last week, it hit me more than it should have, just because I get up at like 1:30 in the morning now. Four a.m. wakeups are a victory. If I can go back to sleep and actually function in the morning, because I have to promote a book. I’m good, though. Honestly, I’m better now than I would have been last year. Last year would have been a disaster, so I’m actually grateful that I’m in a much better mental space and everything all around.
Maris: Good. And where are you?
Michael: I’m in Harlem, in the very tiny apartment that I thought I would actually be fleeing very soon. I actually feel like my life has been in purgatory for a long time, and literally now, this is—yeah. I have a roof and I’m happy. I will say I’m glad I spruced up a few things because if it had been a few months ago, I don’t know, girl, I might not have made it. All I hear are sirens and birds.
Maris: In Brooklyn too. I love the exposed brick. That’s a good background.
Michael: Thank you! Again, I’m grateful to have a place—you can tell this is one of these apartments that used to be a one bedroom and then they chopped it in half and was like, someone will live here anyway, and here I am. The brick makes it nice.
Maris: What a good segue into talking about your book. Why don’t you tell us about I Don’t Want to Die Poor.
Michael: Well, I Don’t Want to Die Poor, which I really hope you can buy if you can swing it, is essentially—I wrote an essay in 2018 for the New York Times Sunday Review about my private student loan debt, but I really wanted to expound on that. For me, I wanted to really talk about social mobility, inequality, and just, you know—I get the marketing copy, and this is no disrespect to anybody—but like, “chasing your dreams.” The reality is this was a strategic risk, but the fact is there are a lot of factors beyond our control, for many different people for many different reasons, and fundamentally if you’re not a rich white man and born into wealth, it’s probably going to be harder for you. So, it’s talking about both me having to pay well over $1,000 a month in loans and how that impacts every facet of my life, but also the emotional debt that we all carry, which is exacerbated by financial stress. And also trying to pull back on this idea of what people think success looks like. I’m very grateful to be a New York Times bestselling author, but as I write in the book, it’s the same week I lost my health insurance. And when I found out I was like high on my elliptical depressed, and it was a saving grace.
Maris: You also talk in the book about permalance and how so many workers don’t have any benefits, and we’re seeing people without sick leave.
Michael: Yeah, I had the great misfortune of graduating around the time of the Great Recession, and the implosion of media as I understood it. Because that’s one thing, I’m literally still getting emails like, “Well, why didn’t you think about the loans?” Which is its own nonsense. But when I graduated there were literally no jobs, and just statistically when you start, that impacts your growth, your earning potential. The fact that even this debt is tied to me—. The thing about permalance, that’s impacting a lot of people in ways it already impacted folks in media. Essentially, companies have realized if they can cut benefits, they will, and give you maybe just a little more on paper that sounds like a lot to you, but then you have to deal with taxes and all this other stuff. It’s a setup. It’s exploiting your labor. And that’s what I want most people to get. Unless you’re the person in the society doing the exploiting, chances are you’re probably not being paid as much as you should, no matter what you’re doing.
Maris: The disparity in wealth between the people at the top of the media pyramid and the bottom—
Michael: Yes. I often think about, again, I Can’t Date Jesus, I’m really grateful to have a book deal, but it is not lost on me and it never has been—I know for a fact that white men of the same age, whatever, equal footing or not in terms of what they look at, still got more money than me based on the preconceived notion that they have more commercial viability than me simply because they’re white. That is why, particularly authors who are not white or not male—if you have more than one “other,” it’s even worse, you get lower advances—and that controls everything. So even without the debt, these are the certain barriers built into these institutions. It’s designed for you to not just fail but never rise to your full potential.
Maris: American Dream and whatnot. And then, of course, you talk about how debt causes mental stress, but you make the point that it also causes physical, medical problems from stressing about it, and it’s a vicious cycle.
Michael: Yeah. I did a little bit in I Can’t Date Jesus, but in this book I really expounded because I just had more knowledge, and time was going on, about just how much the stress of having to pay these loans to avoid defaulting to stay afloat to eat, to do all these things, really does weigh on you. And again, with the permalance thing, if you entered the Obamacare market, you’re grateful for the legislation to be more inclusive, but you’re cognizant of the reality that the way the system is structured, if you make a little bit more than the median income, which is not that much to begin with, you get no help. Then, you can be broke 50, 60, 70, 80, 90, 100, 1000, and still not have good health insurance. Even right now, I am technically the—I’m in Harlem, I’m black, I’m 35, I’ll be 36 on Sunday—
Maris: Happy birthday!
Michael: Thank you. I’m always sharing shit with Jesus. But if I went outside and got sick, god forbid, it would look bad for me. Doesn’t matter any title I have, that’s just the reality. That’s the reality of a lot of people who make far more than me and have for a long time. I know this is lovely material, but I can say the book, it’s a lot of dark stuff, but it is funny.
Maris: It’s very funny! Let’s talk about other career choices you had considered.
Michael: Yes. I really wish I got into the foot fetish market with the pictures. I did not realize how lucrative that was. Maybe if I can fix my feet if I can ever go outside again, I’ll do that. I definitely regret not rapping. I don’t know if there’s still a market for like a 40-year-old gay rapper. I don’t even think gay people want an old rapper. If I can find a way to be the gay Future, I will. That was one of the chapters I had fun. Because I knew this book would be darker. I actually didn’t know how much I was gonna share, but I need levity because literally I am a clown.
Maris: And tell me about—you write in the book that Instagram doesn’t feel like work the same way that Twitter does.
Michael: So many people are now obsessed with being a brand, which I find—god bless everybody, god bless us all—but that is really placed on creatives to perform. It literally drives how much work you can get. Book deals are determined now by your Instagram followers. I didn’t even realize to the extent that Instagram in a lot of ways sells more books than certain national TV appearances. What’s supposed to be a place where you can just chill out, relax, whatever you do on Instagram, there’s now the pressure to perform. I think it’s really interesting now, the people who are not creatives are doing the same thing. I get if you’re a small business owner and it’s tied to your business, but the idea that everybody is trying to be a Kardashian or something else, it’s so weird to me.
That said, I love Instagram. It’s like a flea market that has porn, fitness tips, diuretic tea and all that, there’s a lot going on. But sometimes, particularly when you don’t feel good about yourself, it can make you feel worse. Even somebody who, despite my struggles I’m a confident person, but when you’re inundated with the greatest hits of everyone’s life. People don’t intently try to present just, “I’m perfect,” but you’re not going to go out of the way to show your scabs and scars. But I think when you only show yourself that way, particularly with collective obsession about seeming rich because no one wants to ever look really broke, there’s pressure there. I just wrote about how it made me feel. And I consider myself to be a sure enough person, but the fact that when you don’t have the money and you just see everyone else going on vacations, and everyone’s in Thailand and Dubai or Cuba, and you’re just in your tiny apartment like, “Please don’t call me, loan people,” it wears on you.
Maris: it’s even, nowadays in quarantine, it’s like, “Great! You have a backyard.”
Michael: People out there are trying to stunt during a pandemic, and I don’t understand. I’m like, do you all not understand what’s happening? The fact that we can all go under simply because things are unequal. We don’t need to see you having anything lavish. Chill out. Like the rich people singing “Imagine”? No one wants to see rich people singing about how material things don’t matter from their mansions. No one wants that.
Maris: No one.
Michael: Fran Drescher and Britney Spears, that’s how everybody should be posting right now on Instagram and Twitter.
Maris: They are modern-day heroes for sure. Tell me about what you’ve been actually doing with yourself.
Michael: During the day? I’m used to unfortunately always being at home. People keep saying oh, you’re used to this. I’m like I hate working from home, I tell people that. You’ve never heard me say, ooh, this is so ideal. I’ve really tried to keep a schedule. That has been interrupted by the dissolution of my sleep pattern. Actually to the book, I wake up around Morning Joe o’clock on MSNBC. Or now it’s just so depressing, I can’t do it. Then I take a break. A morning jig is what I do on Twitter, so I do try to bop, because I generally feel this world tries to steal your joy by like 7:45 a.m., and if not the world, your inbox by 8:45, so you just need to have a little bit of joy. Some people wake and bake, that’s their decision. I prefer a nice sativa if I’m going to do that. But I try to just have a sense of whatever is my ideal calm, so any combination of that. Then I try to do my home workout. I’m one of those annoying people who bought dumbbells. To be fair, I had the misfortune in March, I was in New York, LA, and New Orleans within like the same two weeks, so when everything was shutting down, I was like [gestures].
But anyway, I work out, and then lately it’s just been book promo, so I have a schedule. In between that I’m trying to work. But I will say this: I keep a schedule for me because I have to function because I have a book to promote, so I’ve made myself realize, you need to function and make money while you can because the economy’s imploding. But that said, I always give myself allowances. If I don’t have it in me, I stop. Like yesterday I was just so tired. I believe in my book, but I didn’t have any more in me to be social or just to do anything, so I just stopped and went to sleep. Or even just turn on a movie. One weekend, I escaped with a BET+ trial smoking weed and watching Madea plays, and a show called Bigger on BET, which is actually really well written. I hope people watch that. Madea plays was like being with my family back in the South, except they don’t end up saved by the end. So, whatever your distraction, go into it. I don’t know why people believe we should write the next great whatever in the middle of a pandemic. You should wear a mask, wash your hands, and be quiet. And donate, if you can.
Maris: I appreciate that. Do you have a local bookstore? What was your book launch going to be like?
Michael: I do The Strand in New York. Love the Strand. Was actually today supposed to be at Uncle Bobbie’s in Philly. We did a virtual event, and that’ll air today instead. Brazos Books in Houston was an indie bookstore that gave me space, and I was really excited about going back there. There were so many bookstores, it was a really nice mix. So that really sucks. But if you can support your local bookstore you really, really should. All retailers need help but do the best help that you can for those that need it. Please buy my book. Can you tell I still gotta pay these student loans?
Maris: Thank you so much, Michael.
Michael: Thank you for having me I really, really appreciate it.