In the service of an idea


I can say that it has always been in my cards that I would go back to South Africa. It can also be said that it has taken me eight years – from 1996 – to become familiar with and accept the fact that my return will be as a writer, with the consequent implications for my social status and lifestyle.

“Doesn’t have a car? Well, he is after all a writer.”

“Has to take the bus to visit his parents in Middelburg? Well, if he were an ordinary office worker, it would have been one thing …”

“Thirty-two and he’s not married, and he doesn’t even have a credit card? Well, it’s not as if he’s a bank clerk.”

“Ragged beard, old sweatshirt, blue jeans that probably cost him no more than R50? He’s not unemployed, is he?”

“No, he’s a writer.”

I am in the service of an idea. I am a Missionary for a Gospel of Another Sort. But what do I see, when I look at myself through another person’s eyes? It is true that people are sometimes intolerant; that they do not always have an open mind regarding alternative ways of thinking and living. It is also true that if you prove yourself as an artist (which traditionally means commercial success) you will be accepted by the community as such.

Am I willing to accept certain realities that will manifest in my life time and again over the next few years? For example, a woman says after one or two dates: “I enjoyed your company immensely … it’s just a shame you don’t have any money. I mean, you are a writer and so on, but it’s not like anyone ever reads any of your books …” Am I ready for this? It will be one thing if old-timers who drive around in BMWs shake their heads, but I’m just human. Am I willing to sacrifice things that are important to me and things that I need for the sake of my service to an idea?

(It’s another Monday, in another year.)

What I am saying here is nothing new. What has changed is the degree of my commitment to the Writer’s Occupation. For years, I tried balancing my literary ambitions with things that can make money. Money must still be made, nothing can ever change that. But I also know now that it’s not simply a case of me wanting to write. I need to write. I also believe that I have to write, that it’s something I am supposed to do.

* * *

You may have had daydreams about a conventional middle-class life since childhood. But what do you do if another desire compels you into directions that are not necessarily conducive to a typical middle-class life? These desires may find an outlet in social or political activism, missionary work for some religious organization, or the stubborn pursuit of creative ambitions. Up to what point do you give preference to a life that feels right deep down in your marrow?

As it is with missionary work or activism, so it sometimes is with the production of literary material where financial compensation is not high on the priority list. In these cases, it has less to do with a career choice than a choice for a life where a particular agenda is served. As a profession, it has certain implications for your social and financial status. It’s a life that requires you to make sacrifices. It could mean that someone like me would have to wait until I’m forty before I can afford to get married and have children and that I would have to wait another decade after that before I could afford to buy a house.

A person who is not willing to make the necessary sacrifices for missionary work or service to a righteous cause should not become a missionary or an activist. If you want to afford the expensive things in life, if you want to enjoy the luxuries of life, go into business or become a stockbroker. If you want to stand in the service of an idea, you have to be willing to sacrifice.