Today marks six years of writing as a free agent. When I hung out my shingle back in 2006, I wasn’t sure what it would be like to get up in the morning, walk into the next room (my office) and find my job waiting for me.
I wondered, would it be a matter of time before my writing turned into more of a hobby than a profession?
Actually, it was the other way around.
My home life, for a long time, disappeared. In its place was my writing life, only my writing life. During this time, the phone would ring at all hours with editors making frantic requests that frequently fell under the rubric of pie-in-the-sky. (This often would be something along the lines of, ‘We really love what you did with the contango piece, but do you think we could add a talking dog? We’d really love a talking dog.’ To which, I’d say, ‘Of course, how could I have forgotten the talking dog?’ And just as often as not, we’d never speak of it again.)
When I relocated to London, the New York editors’ calls would roll in past midnight. The hardnosed, salty-mouthed (usually male) editors were my favorite. I strongly preferred them to the pinched Barnard ladies who would fuss and fidget over every last accent aigu until their magazine was put to bed. It was a long time before I learned how to balance the steady stream of demands with a life that allowed for, among other things, regular meals, the occasional exposure to sunlight and sleep.
But it was worth it, because any topic I stumbled across I could make into a story. The world, I found, was full of maddeningly fascinating mysteries nobody else seemed to be noticing. On an Emirates flight to Dubai, I thought, how is it we are allowed to quaff champagne on a Muslim airline — and have Muslims serve us without breaking with their faith? This led to a series of feature-length articles on Islamic finance.
My first book proposal was written from snatches of time over many weekends, because it was impossible to do during the busy work week. Once I returned to New York in late 2008 with my first book deal, Wall Street was falling apart. Yet even with half the magazines I’d written for cratering, there were still plenty of stories to write about the crisis for the publications left standing.
Whether boom or bust, it has never been boring. This is the reason, I believe, so many executives on Wall Street can’t bring themselves to ever leave. Certainly, there is the realization that any sickness of mankind will be exacerbated there and duly amplified. That is unavoidable. But the genius is there too. There is a loneliness among the truly gifted that seems to find a home along the corridors of Wall Street.
I have talked to many people over the years who say they would like to leave. But for what? The money is good. But that’s not the main stumbling block. It’s more furtive than that. It’s a feeling that to remove oneself from the vortex of power would be to forevermore live life in the outback. The vortex is addictive. And, ultimately, it’s not really about the money. It’s about being an insider. To leave would be to become an outsider.
Unless, that is, you leave for politics. Because the fight here is not for money, but personal relevance.
Even for mere Wall Street writers, this is true (despite the fact financial journalists are outsiders by definition). I could very well write about art and wine and great, great literature. Sometimes I do. But artists and vintners and writers will never be as interesting as the people I talk to on Wall Street. Sooner or later I am going to ask a vintner how much artisan wine is pressed in California annually or what the yearly cash flow is of an average vineyard and I will get a blank stare. Faced with a dearth of quantitative facts, I cannot help but be crestfallen.
On the other hand, Wall Street is never so banal. One of my favorite hedge fund managers is into extragalactic physics and biblical textual analysis. Not for any reason. Just for fun. How can any writer walk away from that?
I was raised by an English teacher and an artist. They did all could to ensure that I would never be interested in finance. They discouraged me from taking an unwholesome interest in balance sheets, Beige Books, black swans.
But as soon as I found out about triple witching, it was all over.