There’s a new documentary out about Nora Ephron, made by her son. It’s called Everything is Copy, which refers to her insistence that all matters of her intimate life were to be shared in her work.
I love Nora Ephron, and I’ve been thinking about that concept a lot lately, about the need to share the intimate stuff, the hard stuff.
So as of today I’m starting a new section of my blog, a dedicated place where I talk about the hard stuff.
Why? As a personal challenge, for starters. I tend to shy away from talking about the really hard stuff. I’ve got a laundry list of hard stuff I never talk about, and I don’t think it serves me, and I know it doesn’t serve my work.
I’m also doing it because people tend to respond to the hard stuff, because they have hard stuff, too, and it makes them feel less alone maybe.
So – here goes.
I had a really bad couple of hours on Friday, and in the thick of it I posted something about it on Facebook. I was surprised at the number of responses it solicited. It’s a topic that’s hard for a number of people, it seems, and it only gets harder the older we get. And that topic is…
…student loan debt.
I spent Friday afternoon on the phone with Navient trying to work out a stupid paperwork issue so that I don’t have to pay $859 a month in loan payments. It was agonizing, and a couple of times while speaking with them on the phone I actually had to stop and breathe because I was ugly crying and my throat was closing in on itself and I couldn’t get words to come out of my mouth. Frankly, I don’t think “Keith” in India really gave a shit. I mean, poor privileged white American girl who can’t pay her bills. I get it. I would call bullshit on me, too.
My husband was understandably worried about me. It’s probably not a nice thing to see your wife hunched over, her head on her desk, sobbing to Indian Keith on the phone, not making much sense. Hubs did the only thing he could think to do – he rubbed my shoulders and told me it would be OK. Which was nice, even though I didn’t believe him.
So, here’s the thing. Here’s what’s got me so upset.
As of this moment, I owe $91,762.32 on my student loans. That’s about $20,000 more than when I graduated 14 years ago.
It’s a punch in the stomach, writing that.
I hadn’t looked up the actual number in awhile, and I thought it was about $85,000. So, yeah, it’s actually $6,000 more than I thought.
What did I buy for $91,762.32? A BFA and an MFA in Acting. Go ahead and laugh. I would laugh, too, at the absurdity of spending $91,762.32 to learn how to be a fucking actor of all things if it wasn’t such a sad and sickening reality.
I’m 40. The reality is that I just don’t make any real money working in the arts. Some people do. I have many friends who do. I’m glad for them. But for whatever reasons, whether it’s the choices I made or things that I have no control over, I never landed a really great job as an actor.
Now, I’m smart. I was valedictorian of my high school graduating class and I have an advanced degree. I could work outside my industry. I could teach. I could work in sales. I could bartend. I could work as an executive assistant. I’ve done all those things, in fact.
I’ve been reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, and in it she talks about never relying on your creativity to pay the bills. She talks about the honor of having an outside job that pays the bills so that your creativity has room to breathe, that it doesn’t have the burden of responsibility placed on it.
I get that, as an idea. And I’ve tried that. For years and years and years. And you know what I found? That, at the end of the day, I was too exhausted by the hustle to have any energy left to put towards my creativity. I’m hard-working, and I’m loyal. The job I’m being paid to do will always be the one that comes first. That’s the way I was raised and it’s hard-wired into me. Compound that with living in New York and Los Angeles during those years, and suddenly the amount of money you need to just get by is exponentially higher. But you have to live there because that’s where most of the work is. And trying to have a regular job while also trying to be an actor is nearly impossible. Actors have to have spontaneously flexible schedules because sometimes you only get a half day’s notice about an audition.
All of that is exhausting, and it’s not a great environment for creativity to feel safe and welcome.
The only times I’ve ever been able to make decent payments on my student loan is when I have worked outside my industry. I remember those times. That’s when I was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and taking blood pressure medication at 30 because I was so fucking stressed out. It’s taken me a long time to admit it, but unless I’m actively working at a creative job every day I am totally. Fucking. Miserable. It actually feels like part of my soul dies every day. There have been so many mornings where I would cry over my eggs because the thought of going to the office was so dreadful it made me feel physically ill.
What bothers me about this, is that I was allowed – encouraged, really – to buy something, to take out a loan for something, that was probably never going to be the thing I did to pay off that loan (in fact, at least half of my classmates, maybe more, are not making a living as a working actor). Why did I borrow $91,762.32 and spend seven years of my life becoming a fucking awesome actor, if I could never hope to pay that money back by being an actor? Why was I made to feel like I was lucky to be paying so much for this education? That it was a fucking privilege to leave school with such an expensive degree?
That’s sick, and the more I think about it, the angrier I get. Normally, I’m a good sleeper. But it’s 2 a.m. on a Sunday night and I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about this suffocating monkey on my back. So I’m up writing about it, because I don’t know what else to do.
My husband thinks that something is going to happen, that there are too many people like me, too many people who have crippling student loan debt, who have no hope of ever being able to pay them off, that there will be some sort of change in the future, some kind of relief. I so wish for that to be true.
But, in dark moments, I don’t believe that will ever happen. I assume I will die without ever paying this loan off. That I won’t be able to collect social security. That I will live at or near the poverty line for the rest of my life, and that I will have to work until the day I die.
Look, I made the choices that led to this. I own that. And I’m making choices now that are contributing to my debt getting bigger instead of smaller. I own that, too. I made the choice that I just can’t work another 9 to 5 office job, or worse, work in a restaurant. I’m able to make just enough money to keep myself afloat by freelancing. I write thousands of words every week for various websites. I work as a personal assistant in someone’s home. I put together pitch decks for TV shows in development. I finished my first novel and I’m looking for a literary agent. I’m co-writing a screenplay with a talented friend whose first feature is screening at the Tribeca Film Festival this week.
I act now and again when a project comes up. But I don’t pursue it full time because pursuing acting is really expensive, especially in Los Angeles. There are so many things you “have” to buy – new headshots every year, great audition clothes, regular haircuts (and colors, now that I’m getting grey hairs – can’t be old here!), casting director workshops you have to pay to attend in order to meet anyone, classes you should be taking…it’s a never-ending money-suck being an actor, and I just can’t stomach laying out that kind of cash anymore. Not when I already owe $91,762.32 for my training.
I’m actually happy doing what I’m doing. I work really hard. I’m extremely disciplined. I get up at 6:30 most mornings and am at my desk working by 8. I’m always on the lookout for new gigs, and for creative ways to make more money. And when I’m not thinking about this crippling debt, I feel pretty good. But then I remember how much I owe, and how little I make being creative, and I end up in a shame spiral, admonishing myself and feeling sorry myself at the same time. It’s a crappy place to be.
I come from a working class family. My dad was a steel worker and my mom worked in the cafeteria of my elementary school. Now she works in the floral department of a grocery store. I learned about hard work and sacrifice from them. I learned that most people work hard at jobs they don’t love. Because that’s how it is.
I have loads of shame about this debt, and that I’m still sticking to my artistic guns in the face of it. It sometimes feels self-indulgent and ego-centric and I hate myself for it. It’s safe to say I often feel tortured about being an artist in a culture that doesn’t value art. I haven’t had commercial success, and I may never have it. But I keep going because I have to, the core of who I am dictates it. All other choices make me feel awful and dead inside.
I don’t have any answers. And when I ask myself if I would do it again, if I would go to college and graduate school again, I know the answer. Yes, I would. It was transformative for me personally and as an artist. My whole experience of the world is different, richer, because of it.
But I would handle this debt differently. I wouldn’t just presume, at 25, that someday I’d book a national commercial that would pay off the debt. Because I haven’t and I probably won’t. I’d be smarter about my choices. And, frankly, I think my education should have better prepared me, prepared all of us, for what the likely reality would be. Give us some pointers on how to handle enormous debt in the most expensive cities, advice on where to find the jobs that are both actor-friendly and not soul-crushing.
I can’t go back, of course. I’ve got to figure out what to do going forward.
I do think our system needs radical change. It’s criminal how much an education costs, while the banks financing those education loans keep getting richer. But, that’s the American Way, isn’t it? The rich get richer and fuck everybody else. The banks get bailed out, but the little guys with not a cent to spare get no relief.
That’s the hard stuff I decided to tell you about today. There’s more hard stuff to talk about, and as I find the courage I’ll write about it here. It makes me feel so incredibly exposed and vulnerable and scared, but I think that means it’s worth doing.
I must be off now, for if I have any hope of being productive tomorrow (i.e. make some money to pay off my debt) I better get at least a few hours of sleep.
Be well, friends.