Liesl Jobson is an accomplished short-story writer and musician who tackles everything from anorexia to cleaning the oven, the terror of losing a child, exile, infidelity and desire in her fiction. She’s also a wonderful advocate of South African fiction as one of Bookslive’s reporters.
In this guest blog post for The Spark, a series where African writers talk about what sparked off this particular book, she writes poignantly and powerfully about the deeper fire that moves her to write at all, especially through depression, using fiction as a way of piecing herself back together.
The Spark: Liesl Jobson on Ride The Tortoise
The spark was lit when I was old enough to hold a pen and squiggle its nib across a page. I had observed my mother and knew it was well within my grasp. I took what I had written to my grandmother, and asked her to read to me. Was I shocked that she couldn’t read it? Was I distressed that I still had to learn letter formation in order to write? It is an early memory. The laughter was not unkind and I am sure I was told how clever I was, but it didn’t quite erase the disappointment that my story had not reached its destination. I must have been about four.
Awareness of the power of story was kindled in the Pinetown Library, where my mother checked out books with us. It grew bolder in the bedtime stories my father told from his own boyhood. Night after night Little Coffee Pot who built up a head of steam, blew the whistle and pulled out of the Avontuur station with a sick lady on board. Going through the Long Kloof valley, the bridge was covered with water. The ambulances couldn’t get through. The rains came down, the water rose up, went to its axles, up to the top of its wheels. The train was nearly washed away but Little Coffee Pot did not quit and the sick lady got to the hospital at Port Elizabeth.
When we moved in my 14th year to New Canaan, Connecticut, I had my first bout of depression. These would come in increasing severity over the years leading to hospital stays that would later inform some of the stories I would later write. I owe my survival of the first terrible episode to the friends who wrote to me. Receiving their letters was certainly delightful, but the experience of writing back to them transformed the misery of my dislocation and distress. Letter writing gave me a way of rooting myself in my own lived experience. It offered a way through the unfamiliar place I’d landed in, a way to centre myself, and get back home.
During my student years, severe depression revisited me, and after my children were born the post partum depressions morphed into an extended black hole. Comfort arrived via writing once again. Julia Cameron’s advice in The Artist’s Way to write three pages daily changed my life. This routine offered a much-welcomed epiphany. I could put the grievances of the day and the terrors of the night onto the page. And lo, there they were, the size of a page. Observable, they became by some miracle, quantifiable too.
As I wrote, the shaking of my hand would still, my pulse would settle and my locked spine uncurled from rigid. I developed hindsight. Flipping back through the pages to the entry of the previous week I could remember how irked I’d been by a misunderstanding with my mother or enraged at a perceived insult from my husband. I could recall, as I’d inevitably forgotten, how ridiculously terrifying a child’s sickness had been. Barely a few days on the rash and fever had blown over. My children were not brain-dead, nor did I have funerals to plan. I was talking to my mother and husband again, the abraded dialogues shored up, if not quite repaired.
I’m trying to remember now, when exactly I started writing the morning pages. It must have been about 1998. I sat in the newly built granny flat. It was the year the internet arrived at our house. I am tempted now to find those early notebooks. They are in a cupboard somewhere, but I don’t have to actually look at them to know that what I was writing about then, I am still writing about now. From there I wrote a short story called “Mourning Pages”. It referenced my hospital admission. I put it up on the Zoetrope Short Story workshop and people commented. There was a way to turn what happened to me into fiction. It was a different kind of revelation. There was a way to write my narrative better. There were people who would help me. I was not alone in the unfamiliar terrain of crafting life into prose. The stories that appear in Ride the Tortoise all went through the Zoetrope workshop. They were part of a process of putting myself together as I weathered the storms.
Today, I’m back at the page, and as on many a morning, I’m mystified, grateful, and surprised. The words are sparking again. There. That one. And this. They ignite behind my neck, invisible, yet audible. They enter above the clavicles, then moves under my collar bones, out and down into my forearms, gathering in the hot spot where my wrist anchors at the keyboard. From there the coiling energy to write drives into my curled fingers, through the fingertips and by a myriad miraculous connections of ether and electrons, into letters. The ‘a’ and the ‘b’ and the ‘c’ link to make words, loop into sentences, paragraphs and, eventually, pages. My voice always returns, and yet once it’s taken flight there is always the fear that it will alight in some far away place beyond my recall, never to reappear.
This morning I’m trying to make my voice do something specific. A new story has appeared. I’m afraid of it. I’m loving it. I don’t quite trust it, though. I tinker with it in my journal. But that is jumping the gun. The journal is not the place to force the words into a specific direction. It is the place for welcoming them, for beholding them, for noticing what they have to say. Later, once this exercise is done, then I can make them work. This part of the day is for the warm up, the scales and arpeggios that must be done before the voice shifts to the aria. The warm up exercise must not be rushed, or skipped over. The vocal chords need to settle into each tone, to find the centre, pitch and timbre. The mouth and throat must stretch through each register without force. It requires time to allow these things to happen without pressure.
Flannery O’Connor talks about the spark. Her words resonate powerfully: “…I have to write to discover what I am doing. Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.”
But this morning I have an important song to sing. I am impatient with my exercise that bores me. I must learn the lyrics, master a new melody of the next piece calling to me. Today, my morning pages are filled with more of the same: I’ve been fretting because I need more holding than I’m getting, but I’m already getting so much love and attention, so why, oh why isn’t it enough? I’m filled with self-pity because I just want to sit on his lap. I hate my whiny anguish. Loathe being stuck, not in tune with my world. I feel silly and childish. I certainly don’t want to tease out and actually examine what’s bothering me. I want to shove it away and ignore the fact that I was sobbing uncontrollably just an hour ago because my beloved’s shoulder is dislocated and he cannot hold me tight, and because of that all the fractured parts of me will never stick together while I walk on earth.
But here I am. Back at the page and remembering that, I can fast-forward through the shambles of this minute. I can lean forward a week, into a vantage point, from which I can look back on the despair of this precise minute. I can trust that it will pass. Just like when I was furious about the colour he painted the walls, or the nonsense about the compost heap, or the misheard directions to Stellenbosch. In fact, just writing that last paragraph erased the sorrow and turned the tears into a glue with words.
That little engine lives on in me. I am the engine. I am the storm. I am the water that rises and the sick lady that gets to the hospital. I am, most importantly, the sick lady that gets well, goes home and writes it like it is. I am the storyteller that learns what she knows when she sees what she writes.
Read a sample of her flash fiction online: ‘Invasive Species’, ‘The Gospel of Adam’s Ex’ and ‘The Night Is A Teacher’. (Wordgathering Vol 3.1)