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Leisure, Reality
Student Poor

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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  1. Anonymous says:

    This is really lovely, Tamlin.

    What did you take your BA undergrad degree in? When did you graduate and what do you do now?

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  2. mortadella says:

    If there weren’t impoverished creative people in this world – people with a worldview and a technique foreign to the norms of mainstream consumption, then there would be no cognitive progress across history. Humanity is obsessed with value as a concept only discernable at the obvious point of “delivery”, not a more layered view where the seeds of progressive (and profitable) thought are planted much further upfront and in more abstract terms.

    So Tamlin, when times are tough, please do everything you can to stay true to your creative core, knowing that it is the most valuable thing that you have to offer the world. And if you are more successful one day, know that you have contributed a lot more than millions of other consumerist drones who have aimed no higher than making a quick buck and living comfortably.

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  3. Renee de Villiers says:

    Do me a kindness and write more articles, because I love your writing

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  4. K says:

    not kiff. it’s a bit over the top and uses to many stereotypical images – not to say the experience isn’t real, but it cld have been written differently.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Cute. I give you two years before you’re in PR.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    please bring me my hunga-busta double burger and NEVER write again. neeeeext

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  7. Bob says:

    Yeah, this was pretty average. Maybe stop trying to live through your idols and forge your own path, because this had nothing real in it.

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  8. jo says:

    u people have no clue wat you’re talking about. This piece is awesome and colourful and u haters probably have never written an entertaining sentence in your life.

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  9. Mick says:

    Wow. A mostly sympathetic n smilin’ comment-thread! Nice. Mahala (there Is another meaning to ‘Free’) is about publishing sincerity And new angles/subject-matters/styles; all the stuff SA print media (in the ‘Entertainment’ realm) mostly fail to. The only phenom that detracts from Mahala’s haphazard, sincere beaut – submissions glee’ing from ‘a’-listers like O’Toole and Davis thru crude upstarts Max and that sorely missed Xx, to Edmonds’ and Goss-Ross’ respectively mediated eloquences, thru naive beauts like the current author – is the biled barrage of spitey comments. Sorry for this Blahbage – Juss wannid to say Wow, Sheeshi! Aum bless un-acidic comments!

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  10. Gu says:

    Tam great lively piece, well written as always (although the details are rather sad). But please nothing against Grassy Park, my home base in SA ;))

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  11. Azzerae says:

    Love it! Fuck the haters.

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  12. dave says:

    a piece i keenly read till the end, enjoyed the honesty and can totally relate!

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  13. arnaud says:

    Nice piece, and I can relate.
    Don’t mind the haters, insulters, those full of spite and envy. They’re the ones already working for PR.

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  14. ThePenPusher says:

    I dont care what anyone says. I enjoyed this piece because its the truth and is something I am going through at this present moment in my life. Keep writing. Peace

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  15. Lea says:

    The piece wasn’t bad, a nice slice of real life. I was going to suggest getting a job before selling books only to read later that this girl had put her dignity on the line at least a few times. The author name dropping got a bit much at times but I could see how she was trying to tie everything in with this. Not a bad attempt. You’ll find a way to cut costs without feeling deprived one day Tamlin.

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  16. Portia says:


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  17. hobo says:


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  18. Anonymous says:

    So poor but can still afford whiskey and clubbing? Ok

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  19. muerte says:

    a girl’s gotta live

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  20. Lungi says:

    People who dont knw what to say must just keep queit, this piece shows how talented people are and I wish they could be given a chance to shine and excel in their talents….

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