Today, I opted out of receiving SNAP food benefits for the first time in several years. I’ve been receiving public assistance through Social Security and various government programs since I lost my job locally back in 2009. That’s a frustratingly long time, but these programs have allowed me to maintain some degree of dignity by providing me with a roof over my head, heat in the winter, and food in my admittedly enormous belly.
It’s also afforded me a rare opportunity to try to hone my writing skills. I’ve spent a large portion of those years writing, scrapping projects, writing more, and scrapping even more dumb stuff. I’ve gone from writing pure garbage to writing what I hope is slightly less stinky stuff. It’s an opportunity I’m extremely grateful for – I’m not a guy you want to have flipping your burgers (which would probably be true even if I had 20/20 vision – I’m a terrible cook). I’m not great with my hands. I can barely hammer in a nail without something exploding. Office work is hit and miss for me, but living in as small of a town as I do, it’s not work that comes up very often. So I turned to writing, and in the last year, I’ve actually started to make a go of it in the self-publishing world.
It’s been a fascinating experience, alternating between incredible highs (I was ranked #1 in my sub-genre during a recent freebie day, an accomplishment I still can’t comprehend) and some lows I really wasn’t expecting. Every good creative writing teacher will tell you it’s hard to break kinto the business – damn near impossible, in fact – but what took me completely by surprise has been the support from wild corners of the Earth I really wasn’t expecting. Family I haven’t spoken to personally in years (not out of family drama, but simply because we’ve drifted apart) have bought my books even if my writing clashes with their own personal beliefs. Friends I haven’t spoken to since high school have picked up copies, and it always makes me grin like an idiot taking packages to the Post Office for them. I’ve had pictures come in from as far as Britain of people who have read my paperbacks. It’s been a humbling and awesome experience.
But there are unexpected negatives to this process too, ones I certainly couldn’t have predicted and which have left me feeling like I’ve been through a mental battle royale. I came into this expecting nothing from anybody – every kindness given to me in that regard has been a blessing, one I didn’t want to think was owed to me by any stretch of the imagination. I understand my novels aren’t to everyone’s tastes, and that’s fine! That said, it’s human to want to share in my accomplishments or to just want to hear a friendly “how’s the sales going?” When those who I’m close to attend an event where I’m doing a book signing and choose not to even do so little as come over to say hello, it can feel like a slap in the face.
That’s a funny redundant expression, isn’t it? Slap in the face. Where else am I going to be slapped? The spleen? My big toe?
One other aspect that’s been particularly trying in 2017 is figuring out the reporting side of things. In the space of about a month, the Office of Public Assistance sent me a mountain of paperwork – some of which was repeated, like sign-up forms for voter registration and such. What I believed was a relatively straightforward process in previous years became a mild pain in the ass as I sent in requested forms and copies of my earnings, only to receive more requests for the same information I’d just sent in days or weeks later. All this, and last week I received a letter stating that I’d missed a scheduled phone appointment to review my case in regards to SNAP benefits.
Huh? I’d given them every form they’d requested, every possible shred of information they could possibly need, and still, I had somehow missed something. Not exactly surprising given my forgetfulness, but I really thought I was on the ball – and I was. Here’s the kicker – there was never an appointment I missed. It was an outdated form, one sent to people who needed to call in for a case review. Instead of changing out that form, they made me feel as though I’d done something wrong in the midst of this heap of never-ending paperwork they wanted from me.
I called in, and went through the exact same questions I’d just filled out a couple of weeks before the phone interview. The exact same questions. No joke.
In the end, I had screwed up my reporting. I confused their office’s rules for reporting with those of Social Security. It’s probably a basic level screw-up, something I should have known about, but keep in mind I’ve only been self employed for a year and this is all very new to me. Although everything got straightened out in the end and I still qualify for benefits since I spend more per month than I’m earning on my self-employment, I’ve been mulling it over in the week since and I’ve decided that maybe it’s time I try to stand on my own as far as SNAP is concerned. I only earned $16 from it per month, but that was still a hard decision because $16 is bread, milk, lunch meat, and a condiment or two for a couple of weeks’ worth of meals. But it’s the right decision at this time because I’m finally starting to see good returns on my novels. Not enough to break past what I’m spending on them per month, and it’s a whole hell of a lot from a living wage.
I’m enormously happy with my decision, and proud of myself. Sixteen dollars from my advertising budget might mean less eyes on my novels, but it’s a step closer to me standing on my own two feet again, which was the whole point of this endeavor when I started writing The Ghost at His Back in earnest. The next step is an enormous one. I want to be off Social Security entirely, but getting to that point is a worrying prospect simply because there are so many pitfalls like the one I just stumbled through. Being blind, I can earn a certain amount before my benefits are cut off, but book sales are never a guarantee.
I think I can do it, though. I’m scared, to be honest. I’ve accomplished so much this last year, and I don’t want to see that slip through the cracks because of my own misunderstandings about the way the system works when a person is trying to make something of themselves. This isn’t a regular job – I’m not going to be able to count on a solid paycheck, I’m not going to be able to count on the next project being a well-received one, and I’m certainly not just going to be able to flip a switch one month and say, “Yes, that’s it, no more Social Security forever!” Nothing in life is certain, especially success.
But I think the trying will be fascinating – or at least, I hope so. That’s where this blog series will come in. Some days, I might use it to gripe about the business and tax ends of being blind. Other times, I might use it to talk about the day-to-day of being a legally blind writer with a small amount of vision left to him. I hope it informs, and if you’re in a similar boat, I hope it’s a commiserative effort. Feel free to share your own stories, be you disabled or just trying to get back on your feet. You’ve got a friendly ear in me.
Just don’t expect me to actually be able to see you, that’s all.