I remember when I was newly out of high school and off to community college, and I was obsessed with the concept of being a Thinker. I imagined myself walking the halls of ivy-covered schools and having debates with sweater-clad classmates. I wanted all the trappings of a classic literary life (even if, looking back, I probably based my image of the literary life on too much Harry Potter). It just seemed so wonderful to me, these beautiful, remote schools where you could spend your days reading big books, and it felt so far from my dreary life of practical choices. I dreamed of guys who loved Fitzgerald, who knew Keats by heart and learned French specifically to read the classics. I remember being enamored with the overall “romantic-ness” of this life, this ability to read great works and linger over tea and scotch, to work a few hours here and there at a cafe so one could spend their time going to a liberal arts school and writing to their heart’s content.
It wasn’t until I realized, after the glow around my academic alternative life subsided, that it wasn’t through a couple shifts as a barista that I could have been financing a romantic life. It would have been through a combination of parental subsidies, student debt, and being able to pass off the largely furniture-less life of a student as “intellectual.”
But before I knew much about how the life of a Thinker was paid for, I was consumed with a feeling of inadequacy, wondering why I had to put in long hours at crappy jobs to sustain my life at the local community college, wondering why I couldn’t just jet off to Prague for a semester to drink coffee and take blurry Polaroid pictures. I wanted the life of a Young Beautiful Intellectual, and it certainly wasn’t going to happen on my sucky daily commute.
Since then, I’ve lived abroad. I’ve been a professional writer. I’ve lived a life that I feel might, through the eyes of 20-year-old Chelsea, seem “romantic.” And in living that life, I’ve met my fair share of genuine “bohemians” — people whose lives have all the trappings of the artist and the thinker, who travel and stay in old, wooden-furnished homes, who linger over their poetry collection or do their best thinking in a quiet English garden. I’ve met people who stay for years — even a decade or more — in the nest of academia, never quite needing to leave it because there’s no pressing need to do so. I’ve met people who can spend entire weeks nearly cut off from the world because they are just too busy thinking about their next great project, or the last great book they read.
And you know what all of their situations have in common? I’m sure you can guess.
They are getting that money somewhere. They either have it from outside sources, or they’re putting themselves in debt. Either way, in the present, too allow themselves to live this life, they don’t have to worry about finances. At least, not in the way you and I do. And when we acknowledge this, when we reduce all of the enticing elements of the “romantic” life down to their essential component — money — it all suddenly becomes less romantic, and much more human. It’s just people living well because they don’t have to worry about the same things you or I might, not because there is anything inherently more interesting and wonderful about them.
I used to believe that being a professional creative, or living in a country I wasn’t born in, would make my life suddenly more wonderful and intellectual. But I was able to move by working as a nanny. And I am able to live now as a professional creative by working a very regular workday, where I live with deadlines and edits and invoices and client calls and every other element of a “boring” job. I don’t have freedom from financial responsibility, so I can’t just retreat somewhere to work on a novel for an extended period because it’s where I do my best thinking. I actually have published a book, that was sold in real bookstores and everything, and you know when I wrote it? On nights and weekends, on top of my regular job. And it was great! But it wasn’t “romantic.”
None of the things I’ve experienced since that initial obsession with The College Life have ever transformed my life into something more romantic, except more money. More money means traveling (often to very picturesque places, where I can write on a terrace). More money means being able to take days off, or even a week here and there, to work on projects that please and fulfill me. It means reading good books, learning a new language, and enjoying my hobbies. It means freedom, quite simply, and that is the fundamental element of a romantic life.
It’s so easy to see someone who lives a life that seems freed from the usual constraints and drudgery of a working life, and think that there is something more special or interesting, that they have a strategy we can’t possibly imagine for living the bohemian life. And to an extent, one can reduce the costs of one’s life to a point that less money is required. That’s always true. But in order to live any kind of life — let alone one filled with good food and wine, travel, and ample free time to work on your passion projects — one needs money. And if you don’t have to worry about all your bills getting paid, at least not entirely by yourself, it’s a lot easier to have all those other things that seem so lovely.
To me, I find romance in doing the things I love, even if they don’t look as perfect as I thought they might. I find romance in waking up every day and sitting at my desk, and doing the work that can sometimes feel tedious or difficult, but which is always the work I love. I find romance in getting to take a few great trips a year, which I appreciate all the more because they are special and rare, and because I worked for them. I find romance in getting to read my couple books every few months, to devour them at the beach, even if they might be more Koontz than Keats. I think my life feels full of thought and passion, and even splendor, even if I’m not an “intellectual,” or a capital-W Writer.
Ultimately, accepting that the storied “artist’s life” was nothing more than financial freedom (plus interest in art, of course), has been more freeing than almost any other mental shift about money. I’ve realized that a life of passion will never look the way I thought it should, because I’ll always have to work, and I’ll never have some benefactor providing me with a loft apartment or enough money to cover most of my bills. Two shifts a week at a coffee house where I play indie music over the speakers isn’t going to allow me to live a rich life. But the more I work, the more I find romance in doing things for myself.
And one afternoon per year reading poetry in the garden is more than enough for me, anyway.