Over the years, I’ve been asked: “How did you become a writer?” almost as frequently as people have wondered, “Why did you become a writer?” In answer to the second question, why did I become a writer, I have to admit that I flunked the Law School Admission Test and have zero math skills. In answer to the question how did I become a writer, I say, A. sold my soul to the devil. And B. Lived in Austin, Texas back when I was starting out and it was a really, really, affordable city.
Back in those days, the early eighties, the IRS used to do this wonderful thing called income-averaging. Allowing a taxpayer to average three years income was a godsend to both writers who might spend years before striking it rich with a big advance and to winners of the lottery. Though, in fact, there were many more lottery winners than novelists who struck it rich. Still in the last year that the IRS allowed income-averaging, I toted up my income and, for each of the three previous years, I never made more than three thousand dollars. I had no other source of income. No trust fund. No rich husband. No meth lab. Because I lived in Austin, Texas at a time when our city was beyond affordable I was able to become a writer. It’s pretty much as simple as that.
If I was starting out now, trying to survive on what I made as a freelance writer with the emphasis way too heavily on free, I would, no doubt, have to live in Pflugerville, and there would have been no novels set in West Campus, Hyde Park, Travis Heights, or any of the other neighborhoods where I once lived.
All of us old-timers have stories like I do. Stories of apartments in Hyde Park that rented for sixty dollars a month and chicken-fried steaks the size of a hubcap at the Stallion for 99 cents. And we all know that they were an essential part of how Austin became Austin, a place that could foster writers and musicians, to say nothing of kids building and selling computers out of their garages. I could not have started out my career in Austin now and worry now, not just about young writers and artists and entrepreneurs, but about young families, and old folks, the working poor, and everyone else who is being priced out of Austin as our city becomes ever-hotter, hipper, and more popular.
I’m not saying that the Old Austin was better. I truly believe that Austin, aside from the damn cedar fever, has never been a more exciting, dynamic, creative, and all around fun place to live. But I’m like Brigid. I want Austin to remain a place that my child, that all our children, and all our working class, and retired neighbors, can afford to live. We want Austin to stay the party it has always been where everyone is invited, because, when that velvet rope of money and exclusivity goes up, everything changes.
Many say that affordability is just too big a problem to fix. That it’s inevitable that Austin will keep growing and keep getting more expensive and that there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I remember when they were saying a version of that about Barton Springs. That growth is inevitable and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Aren’t you all glad that Brigid Shea didn’t believe that back then?
She didn’t believe it when the quality of our Springs were in danger and she doesn’t believe it now when the quality of our city is in just as much danger. Brigid has been told that her ideas are too big. That no one can fix affordability, curb wasteful spending, or reform our deranged tax appraisal system.
And, maybe it’s true that Austin does face at least one problem that is beyond Brigid Shea. Maybe, just maybe, she can’t fix cedar fever. But I say, for everything else, give me a woman with big ideas. Give me Brigid Shea for Travis County Commissioner!
Sarah Bird is a nationally acclaimed author who calls Austin home. Be sure to keep an eye out for her latest novel "Above the East China Sea" in May 2014. Read more about Sarah here.