Count the pros minus the cons No. 7542, or … Exile, part viii


The plan

I stay in Taiwan, provisionally until the end of next year.

The immediate benefits


What are the long-term benefits?


The third factor

A third but no less important factor that also had to be taken into account was maintaining maximum productivity with my writing (and other projects). It is this issue on which I want to focus for the moment.

I am not and have never been destined to be the head of any company. I was born a creator – it’s in my blood, and it’s in my brain. It is the one thing I cannot deny without causing myself some serious personal problems.

The world in which I grew up, where my values were formed, and from which most of the people hail with whom I socialise reward people for their choice to earn money in conventional ways – which contribute to the maintenance and strengthening of the economic and political order of the day. Personal success is measured, and the amount of respect you receive is determined, by the value of your labour in this system. A man can compose the most complex and beautiful music since Amadeus Mozart, but if he has to beg for money for a cup of coffee and sleep on a friend’s living room floor, he will be considered a failure.

In this world, people are distinguished by a series of badges – nationality, socio-economic background, race, religion, political beliefs, status symbols, behaviour and dress, to name a few examples. Another badge, which overlaps with the aforementioned items, is career. A lawyer, for example, is treated at first glance with more respect than a street sweeper, a bank manager with more respect than a kindergarten teacher.

My older sister graduated with a qualification that, after getting some appropriate experience, gave her the right to introduce herself as a “Chartered Accountant”. My one friend is a certified “Landscape Architect”. After five years of tertiary education I faced the world as a qualified “High School Teacher”.

Being a teacher – even in a subject like History for which I’ve always had a strong affinity – has, however, never been the answer I wanted to give to the question of how I want to spend at least eight hours per day, year in and year out.

What to do now?

By the beginning of 1996 I had racked up thousands of rand’s worth of student loan debt. I also needed to buy a new shirt every now and then, maybe once every two years a new pair of shoes, and maybe once a year a new CD. And I had to eat and live somewhere. I didn’t want to start a career as a “High School Teacher”. I definitely did not want to be an “Administrative Clerk” in an office, and I didn’t want any job where I would have been forced to do what others ordered me to do for eight plus hours each day. But money had to be earned.

Going to Korea enabled me to win some time. I could taste a little adventure by living in a foreign country while generating an income, without too many people asking me what I wanted to do with my life – or what I was doing with it. After two years in Korea I was filled with a desire to commit to something, and to belong somewhere.

Back in South Africa, I was again faced with the problem of what badge I would carry in an environment where people regarded profession as a primary indicator of who you are, and how they should behave towards you.

An ambition had started growing in my head years previously: To be a writer. It wasn’t just a badge with which I was comfortable; it represented how I wanted to spend my time. By the end of 1998, the idea occurred to me that writing could be more than just something I was interested in – it could be my career!

Being a writer by profession is, however, more complex than becoming a Chartered Accountant. To become a CA, you have to spend the better part of at least four years behind your books to obtain the appropriate tertiary qualification. Then you need to write some exams, and do an internship somewhere. After this lengthy process, you will have earned the right to call yourself a full-fledged “CA” in polite company.

The Road to becoming a Chartered Accountant is known to me, who have never harboured an ambition to become one. Why do I know this? Because it has been formally laid out – and of course I saw the markers as my own sister progressed along the way.

The Road to the Honour of Calling Yourself a Full-time Writer is much less formal. There’s no degree you can earn that can be neatly framed that will tell all interested parties “This guy is a writer.” You can’t shatter your nerves for months on end studying for a difficult exam, after which a Board of Writers will officially welcome you as one of them.

There is, in the end, only one thing you can do to legitimately wear the Badge of the Writer: write. Fill pages with your writing; fill notebooks with your writing. Develop ideas; read, think and write. Write poetry, short stories, articles, essays and letters. Write rubbish, and write good stuff. Write about life. Write about death. Write about people, animals, institutions and nature. Write about mountains, cars, cows and flowers. Write about love and hate. Write about towns. Write about cities. Write about gutters and write about palaces. And in between all the writing, send what you think is good enough to publishers. Learn how to submit manuscripts. Discover in what type of material publishers or publications are interested. Be creative, but learn the habits of a professional labourer. Be an artist, but also know that you need to buy your own food and blankets.

Final thought

We are sometimes easily seduced by the image of the bohemian artist – who refuses to dirty his hands with something as vulgar as money, who never compromises his art for the sake of financial reward, who stumbles hungry and dirty and tired through the streets in old, tattered clothes, and who scribbles words on discarded sheets of office paper that will only after an untimely death be hailed as “Brilliant!”

Fortunate is the artist who has rich parents that still give him or her spending money even when they’re in their forties, or who has a friend or loved one who takes care of them so they needn’t be interrupted in their artistic creations, or who doesn’t want to buy a new pair of pants or a dress or a new pair of shoes out of their own pocket from time to time.

Verily, verily, fortunate is the artist – or writer – who doesn’t have any student loans to pay back …