For the sake of this novel, I go to work all weekend, every weekend. No more big nights out with my friends or lazy Saturday mornings with the papers and a fried breakfast and the person I love. I fight so hard for just one Sunday with my sister. I must reject out of hand the thought of a weekend with beloved friends in another city: however much I miss them, I’ll never get the holiday. I cannot love people the way I wish I could. No big birthday presents, no spontaneous trips to the seaside.
For the sake of this novel, I cannot love my partner the way I want to either. I dream of a holiday together. It’s a coup to get away at all, and we have never been abroad, but I am determined: I join The Sun for theme park vouchers; I volunteer us for Work Away and take him along while I do support work in a caravan on the coast. Sometimes we house-sit down the road, and that’s nearly a holiday. I consider us lucky, lucky, lucky to get these breaks. I do. I will always fight to win these moments for us.
For the sake of this novel I work flexible temp jobs who do not pay me on time, and internships who never pay me at all. All I can think is that the work I do is not worth their respect, and in return I must be craven: ‘has there perhaps been a misunderstanding?’ I ask, or, ‘what a nightmare – thanks so much for looking into it for me!’ I cannot afford to show my anger. I cannot afford for them not to hire me again.
For the sake of this novel I coast from one paycheque to another, never trusting when the next one will come in or how much of it will be swallowed up by overdraft fees before I even get to it. I plan out a week’s worth of meals, everything priced up in the back of my notebook. I am lucky to have a deli job that lets me take food home at the end of the day (Remember those austerity recipes Jamie Oliver was ridiculed for, teaching poor people how to use up stale sourdough? That’s me.). I hoard the last £5 note in the back of my wallet just in case something goes wrong. I can spend nothing for a week if I have to. Two weeks. That note still sits there.
For the sake of this novel I am tense, weepy and full of shame: who do I owe money? Whose birthday have I missed? Will they take my lack of payment, my no-show, as lack of care? I care terribly, but I can barely speak about it. I don’t know how to take other people’s generosity: a lift, a bottle of wine, a gig ticket. It makes me embarrassed but I couldn’t spend time with them otherwise. I cannot have new clothes. I cannot have a haircut. I cannot shave my legs, if I can’t afford the razors. I cannot love myself the way I wish I could.
I have lived this way nearly all my adult life, usually well under the poverty line, and mostly it’s OK. I know how to retain my pride. I worked out ages ago that by putting in time one can achieve a lot of the same things that one would by putting in money. Walking to the veg market on a day off; trawling charity shops; doing my own DIY and planting my own garden. I get nice stuff, just more slowly. But some days, days like today when I am forced to pretend that late payment is no biggie, that two months’ late payment is no biggie – ugh, it does get old. Being poor gets really really old.
My friends say they just couldn’t do this, that I am brave. Actually I don’t think that’s the word for it at all. At best I’m stubborn. To be honest, as much as the alternative – jacking it all in tomorrow for a comfy salary – is appealing on days like today, when I really think seriously about it I feel a bit cold, a bit sick. I prefer this version of myself, and I think my poor darling partner prefers it too: a girl who sticks to her guns, who creates, who works so bloody hard.
This feverish writing, this is an act of self-love. It is the most selfish thing I ever did. I am refusing to give up the space for it in my life: I choose to spend the day in the library and not the office; I choose this tiny box room instead of a flat and a cat with my partner; I choose to build my life around my writing and not around my socialising, even when it breaks my heart.
This year is even more important than my MA year was. This year is the year I finish my novel; this might be the year I sell it too. And it’s not like after that happens I’ll be on the pig’s back, but it will have paid off all the same, because I’ll have finished something really worthwhile. I’m doing all this because I know that I can do it, and I am going to damn well make sure I do it. Perhaps after this year I’ll get myself a permanent nine-to-five Monday-to-Friday, and a flat with my boyfriend, and a holiday. But most of all I’ll have a really really good book to show for it. It is my baby. It is me. I’ve worked harder for it and sacrificed more than I have for anything else in my life, and I do not doubt for one single moment that it is worth doing. Because what I do for the sake of this novel I do for my own sake; I do out of total love.