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The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Things I Wanted To Write Off As a Business Expense But Didn’t

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I have a very affordable tax guy who is incredibly enthusiastic when it comes to writing off my business expenses.  In our annual meetings, Stanley always makes it a point to tell me about his other writer clients who are very creative when it comes to writing off business expenses (in fact, they are more creative than me, he said).

“I have a client who traveled the world,” Stanley said.  “And she wrote a cookbook about it.  Ever done anything like that?”

“No,” I told him.  I wished I had a receipt that said TRAVELING THE WORLD.  “Not really.”

My expenses were obvious.  Dull, even.  My desk, AWP membership, printer, Acer.  Ink, paper, manuscript shipments, and so on.  Stanley wrote these down but insisted there had to be more than just the obvious.  He tried jarring my memory, asked me to think long and hard about anything I had purchased for public appearances.

“Do you need to wear anything special when you appear in public?” he asked.

I told him that no, nobody cares how I appear in public, except maybe me and maybe my mother.

“Okay,” he said.  He asked me if I had purchased anything for the sole purpose of writing better.  I thought, yes:  there were those too-high-for-me-heels I bought from Aldo because I am never wearing heels, but my new character is always wearing heels.  There was that time I drank German beer while trying to write about people drinking in Germany.  When I bought a shitload of fennel because one of my characters ate it a lot.

But none of this sounded very professional; I couldn’t bring myself to say, “Yes, Stanley, a shitload of fennel.”

“Gloves,” I said.  “I cut the tips off the fingers, and can’t write without them or else I get blisters on my wrists.”

Stanley was not impressed.  In fact, he looked worried about me, but wrote it down. (Five dollars).

My meetings with Stanley always get me thinking about how my experiences directly relate or affect my fiction, especially when we get to the “research” expenses.  Sometimes the correlation is clear; you travel the world sampling different foods and then write a book about traveling the world and sampling different foods.   Or a writer I knew who once wrote off a visit to a strip club for “research.”  Because it really was for research.  He was writing a book about strip clubs (I never asked how much the bill was).  But I am not a writer of nonfiction, or cookbooks. I am, essentially, making shit up most of the time.  But even as you foray into the “unreal,” what you make up is necessarily influenced by what you know to be real.  This is true for me; I always notice some kind of overlap between what’s in my brain and what comes out on the page, even if the story is as far from my personal life as possible. So here is a list of the odd business expenses I have accrued over the years as a writer, and would have reported had I been less afraid of going to jail.

 

Cable

There was that period of time when I became obsessed with re-enactments on horrible cable shows.  I watched hours of True Hollywood Story and The Most Deadly Women and Mega-Disasters on the History Channel.  I learned about earthquakes crippling future St. Louis.  I learned about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, about women who nobody ever thought could be murderers murdering people and young innocent girls who got in the wrong cars.  At some point, I became less interested in the content of the show and more fascinated by the actors portraying the murderers or the little girls who spend their childhood acting like dead girls in the woods.  Because who were these people that got hired to re-enact suicides, rapes, murders for cable?  What was it like to make a living re-enacting other people’s tragedies?  I didn’t know.  But I wrote a short story about it.  (“This Is Only a Reenactment;” Cable, 79.99 per month – though somehow it’s always more than that).

 

2. Metro North

A blog once described The Adults as “so emo it could cut itself.”  Regardless of whether this is a good or a bad thing, it might very well be true.   There are a lot of teenagers in the book, teenagers who dwell in basements and have a lot of trouble seeing past the brim of their own eyes.  And how do you remember what being a teenager feels like, people often ask me.  How does a person who is not a teenager write like one?

Mostly, I have my trips home to visit the parents to thank. Visiting my childhood home is essential to my writing process; it depresses and exhilarates me in certain ways that help me write teenage characters.  And it isn’t just about being around parents again (though that’s certainly part of it).  It’s about sleeping in my tiny bed where my feet hang off.  It’s seeing my Participation trophies on the wall, the pictures of me in braces with greasy hair, remembering that Oh Yeah everyone is really sweaty in middle school.  It’s seeing the way my reflection has changed and widened but my dresser mirror has not.  How all of our trees have been cut down, all of them dead.  Even the apple tree.  Especially the apple tree.  Now a memorial statue for my brother stands where the apple tree stood; now nobody is playing football in the side-yard where my brother used to be.  And the Nintendo controllers sticking out of the entertainment closet; oh my God.  It takes, usually, about one week to make the complete transformation into a fourteen-year old again, and you’ll know it’s happened when you start bitching about things that nobody should bitch about, like we are really having dinner, at the table, again?   ($21 round trip, off-peak).

 

3. Road Trips & Moving Expenses

My characters are in cars a lot.  They have a lot of life-changing conversations on highways I’m not sure why I keep putting them there.  If I were smart, they’d break up in front of the Taj Mahal.  They’d find God on the Teton Mountains.  But instead they are in cars, on I-95 or I-70.  Chevy Cavaliers, Volvos.  This is probably because I am always in a Cavalier or a Volvo, always taking very long road trips from one part of the country to another, because I am always moving from one part of the country to another.  Providence to St. Louis to New York and beyond.   When you drive cross-country, you see a lot of billboards.  JESUS IS REAL and GOT A BRA PROBLEM?  You stop at places you probably wouldn’t have visited had they not been on the way, like Lancaster, PA.  You take tours of Amish Homes, which I found not as charming as I foolishly thought it would be.  They all get buried in the same coffins?  The women pin their clothes together with straight pins?  There is no heat in the upstairs of the house?  (Questions explored in new novel, $7 for tour + cost of gas and food and lodging).

 

4. Cat

Since I’m a writer who primarily works from home, I have no co-workers.  When something dramatic happens, when I’ve run out of coffee or the Hank Williams CD is not recognized by my CD player, there is no one to commiserate with.  I believe loneliness in the work place is one of the many reasons writers often get cats.  Now, Dr. Fuzz sits by the end of my bed as I write, and I am forced to think about her the way you are forced to think about any living thing directly in front of your face for most of the day.  I have no choice but to observe Dr. Fuzz’s daily routines, draw conclusions on what it means for a cat to be a cat.  Sure enough, there are all sorts of cat-related images popping up in my new fiction, like, “There was a banana peel draped on Ned’s shoulder like a cat, “or “I pretend it’s the cat licking butter off my tongue” (Cat observations, “Someone’s Uncle.”  $100 dollars, plus litter box).

 

6. Take-out

When I lived in St. Louis, I would visit my brother in New York.  One night instead of going out or cooking he said, “Let’s order in food.”   Delivery food to me meant Imo’s pizza and it was best usually to not eat Imo’s pizza, so it had been a long time since I got food delivered.  I figured we’d just do the same, get a pizza or some Chinese.  But my brother got out a menu for an Italian place and said, “I’m going to get the Seafood Fra Diavolo.”

“That’s what you’re getting?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I was confused.  Because who orders such an elaborate meal for delivery?  That’s what I wanted to know.  “New Yorkers,” my brother said.  I nodded my head like I understood.  That, I guess, was what made someone a New Yorker.  Someone who orders Seafood Fra Diavolo and eats it on a TV tray while watching Law & Order.  (24$, Fra Dialovo reference, Page 259, The Adults).

 

5. Absinthe

The absinthe was purchased in a shady bar in Europe while with a much older man.  I had never had the stuff before, but he had, of course; that’s what older men were good for, I learned that week.  They knew to ask for the green stuff, not the blue stuff.   I remember thinking this as I watched him strike the match.  I remember really noticing the visual, the green and the blue flame with the red tip.

But as a fiction writer, it’s difficult to predict the images or sounds or moments that will stay with us and worm their way onto our pages, that it was not my ex-boyfriend’s mouth or his face or his words over the flame that I think of, but the flame itself, burning impossibly blue and bright in the glass.  I remember it looking like a tiny little miracle—the fire on liquid, and the love too—how it all should have been impossible.   And it kind of was.

(Page 200 of The Adults, image of absinthe on fire).

“Do me a favor, Alison,” Stanley said, closing my file.  Our meeting was ending and Stanley was disappointed in me.  I had not gotten myself into a lower tax bracket.  I was disappointed; I would pay a whole lot in taxes. “This year, please keep all of your receipts.”

 


Alison Espach is the author of The Adults, a Wall Street Journal Top 10 Novel of 2011 and New York Time's Editor's Choice. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney's, Five Chapters, Glamour, Salon, Slice, The Daily Beast, Writer's Digest, and others. Her short story, "Someone's Uncle," was recently published by Scribner and is now available as an e-book. More from this author →