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Leisure, Reality

Student Poor

by Tamlin Wightman / 21.08.2010

I’m poor. Relatively poor. Poor enough to have to sell treasured hardbacks – my Bukowski, my Hunter S and Heart of Darkness. Even my YDE gear had to go for money to buy milk. I considered the Mr Price stuff once. That was a low. Assistants pity me at used book stores -Folio on Claremont Main Road and The Book Shoppe in Retreat. They shake their heads. Oh God, here she is again! Tossing me a twenty for a novel in better times I forked out 300 big ones for.

One day I asked the owner for a job. God knows I didn’t want it. She turned me down. I put off returning until I had absolutely no petrol or food to keep me vertical. Another book, another twenty.

I was Orwell poor in his Down & Out in Paris & London phase. Really poor. Not shacks on the way to the airport poor – but poor. Student poor. Subsisting on R7 bags of popcorn and potatoes for weeks. Faint with hunger. Sneaking whiskey into clubs in a hip flask. Tied like Odysseus to the mast of rent and a student loan. Eventually moving back into my parents place to avoid scurvy. Earning the odd buck playing maid for them. Wonders for your self-esteem. Scrubbing toilets and washing windows. Walking the dog. I joined a library so I could read for free. Only to have my account frozen after I couldn’t pay the late fees. Frozen by the library. Poor is like life during wartime. A whole lot of going without.

I’ve been there and what kept me going was the sad BA grad delusion that all great novelists experience poverty. A kind of rite of poor passage. Like Charles Dickens. His father couldn’t afford to pay the family’s debts and was sent to prison. Charlie had to leave school for a job in a boot-blacking factory. Dickens blacking boots. He earned six shillings a week and his whole family had to live on it. No wonder he championed the downtrodden. No wonder he pumped so much feeling into Oliver Twist. Orwell. Mark Twain was dirt poor. Henry Miller seldom had change in his pockets. Tolstoy opposed private property in favour of poverty. None of them had enough in the bank for a nice weekend away in Hermanus.

If suffering makes you a great writer, I’m on my way. I’ve waitressed at the Spur in Maynard Mall. That’s enough suffering to write War and Peace. I’ve ferried the maggot-infested garbage from guesthouses in Camps Bay to the dump, over Christmas, when garbage collectors are off. That’s good enough for Crime & Punishment – surely? I’ve tutored menacing high school students in Grassy Park and hand made pretty little canapés for Valentine’s Day parties in Bishopscourt. Pain enough for The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Time to cash in on all that woe. I will embrace poverty and do nothing but write. Trying desperately to shush the voice in my head reminding me genius comes first (then the poverty). Genius makes poverty okay. Besides, Nabokov lived like a king. Fitzgerald partied hard and bought property. Phillip Roth has an estate in the Hampton’s. Salman Rushdie has homes in London and New York. The point is they got the work done. They wrote. Rich or poor, do the work. Get her done. Then walk the dog.

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