On the Edge

Can one's inner bad girl overcome middle-class security?

From the book's spine, an enigmatic dark-haired woman engages me with her smoky gaze. She has stenciled brows, kohl-lined eyes and a beauty mark; she is dangling a cigarette, of course. She is my alter ego, the writer I always wanted to be, my creative soul embodied in the daughter of sculptors from the Left Bank of Paris or poets from Prague.

The book, titled The Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, is by Laren Stover. Usually, I would hide something like this in my lower bookshelf cabinet, that closed-door purgatory for books that simultaneously embarrass and intrigue me. Cowering in darkness are Mama Gena's School of Womanly Arts, The Sensuous Woman, The Joy of Sex, dozens of volumes about writing and creativity that I read instead of writing and being creative, and other bookish evidence of my dire need for, well, a field guide to living on the edge.

But while true bohemians would laugh, I derive inspiration from that dark-haired woman watching over me as I sit at my desk performing the mundane tasks of the responsible bourgeoisie, like balancing my checkbook and fine-tuning my benefits during open enrollment.

Health insurance—and my savings account—are my talismans of middle-class security. I wonder how artists and writers live without medical coverage. And aren't they nervous wrecks without that recommended three-to-six months salary in the bank? Yet I know these obsessions are an excuse to remain blocked. For heaven's sake, I'm on my husband's health insurance. And although the conditions often coexist, poverty is not a prerequisite to bohemianism.

No, money is masking my deeper fears. After all, if you're not selling your soul to earn it, money can facilitate a creative life. At the very least, it can buy you bohemian lite: think of the plane-flying, beach-dancing, vineyard-buying aging flower children in financial planning commercials. I smile at those images, but I know that sort of conventional bohemianism is not what I'm seeking, nor what frightens me.

Here's the scary part. After a lifetime of coiling my free-spirited writer self into a tight, well-behaved box, I sense that my orderly existence will explode if I unleash my wilder, artier side. If I spew forth reams of passionate, daring words, would passionate, daring actions follow? Would I take those sex books out of the cabinet and expose them to broad daylight? Would I lose my legendary self-control, the rigid grip on sanity that I've maintained all these years? That Stover devotes a chapter of Manifesto to asylums is not reassuring.

One day, while browsing the shelves of writing books at Barnes & Noble, I heard a voice. Forgive the cliché, but it really was my inner voice. She said: "If you want to be a writer, you'll have to be a bad girl." I was so shaken by this spoken truth that I left the store.

I knew some bad girls growing up, but of course I was never one of them. I was an honor student, a tennis player. I dated a mathlete. Now I work for a large high-tech company, where I'm punctual for meetings and early with assignments. I max out my contribution to my 401(k). I'm hardworking, conscientious, and I read books about living on the edge with the yearning of a child locked out of a toy shop.

I'm still sorting it out, but I have learned this: I do have a bad girl buried deep within me. My yearnings are her muffled voice. She is a downright bohemian babe, and writing is the only way to excavate her. So write I do, tentative shy essays, literary baby steps that emerge like puffs of steam from a dormant volcano. And when that mountain finally erupts, I will no longer need a field guide to living on the edge. I'll understand that true security comes from taking creative risks and accepting the innate instability—financial, emotional, artistic, and otherwise—of this precarious but wonderful world.

I think I'll be okay on the edge, as long as I don't look down. m