On Writing ‘Tonnage’ – Giselle Leeb

I had to look back at my first draft to remember which came first: the dream sequences about sharks or the woman narrator’s story. It was the sharks. Like so many of my stories, I often write something and then suddenly it will connect with something else which provides the spark to create a story. So the story started as a story about a fear of sharks, but it didn’t feel as if that was enough on its own.

I swam with sharks when growing up in South Africa. Not knowingly. There were shark nets on the beaches in Durban, where my dad lived, and we happily swam quite far out. I only found out later that a third of sharks are caught on the inside of the nets. I’m all for shark conservation, but I still wouldn’t like to be in a threatening situation with a shark—the incredible physical power they have at their disposal should they attack is for me a deep primal fear.

I didn’t set out to deliberately use sharks as a metaphor—the strands came together organically, and it was only afterwards that I thought about what they meant.

As often  happens in dreams, our subconscious uses symbols to represent things and the woman’s fear of sharks represents something that has happened to her, but which she can’t articulate or face directly.

For me, one of the most frightening situations imaginable is being confronted by someone dangerous who has no compassion. The fear of sharks represents a fear of the absence of mercy, of a lurking force that you can’t control, as well as the feelings of powerlessness and rage that come with being unable to stop an attack. Recognising that deep fear is often hard because it can feel as if there is not a lot you can do about it.

The story started off with wilder, longer shark sequences, which were gradually edited down. In a way, I miss them, but I thought they needed to be more integrated into the story. Dreams on their own can be rambling and fragmented, and some repeat a story over years, so that a dream needs to be condensed down to its essential meaning. Dreams and reality bleed into and colour each other, so the dreams in the story are just the internal continuation of an event that has happened to the narrator in waking life.

I was introduced to Jung’s ideas about dreams when I was about twenty and, after recording my dreams, I am convinced that dreams are closely connected to our emotional lives and that they tell and repeat stories. Current sleep and dream research does seem to confirm some of this: dreams remain mysterious, but many are themed and somehow important to working through things, vital to mental health. Like dreams, the mind sometimes approaches trauma indirectly, circling until a moment of consciousness breaks through.

I recently came across an article by Ekow Eshun, ‘I dreaded going to sleep for fear of seeing him’, in which he tells the fascinating story of how he was forced to confront his past feelings to escape a terrifying figure in a recurring nightmarish dream. The dream ended after many years when he finally met the figure and realised what it represented.

In ‘Tonnage’, the dreams are part of the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with the fear and trauma that threaten to overwhelm her.

Dreams are sometimes considered a bad idea in stories, but I feel that getting as close as possible to the emotion you are trying to convey requires using whatever technique works.

Ben Marcus, in his article for Harper’s, ‘Why experimental fiction threatens to destroy publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and life as we know it’ argues against categorizing writing into experimental and realist, saying that if we were to make a true selection of  ‘realist’ work, this would include many writers who are considered to be ‘experimental’ because they reflect reality better than some so-called ‘realist’ writing.

And, as Stephen King says in On Writing:

There is absolutely no need to be hidebound and conservative in your work, just as you are under no obligation to write experimental, nonlinear prose…Both the traditional and the modern are available to you. Shit, write upside down if you want to, or do it in Crayola pictographs. But no matter how you do it, there comes  a point when you must judge what you’ve written and how well you wrote it. (Hodder Paperbacks, 2012)

The story ends, as it starts, with a dream fragment, but the dream has evolved to include a symbol of hope and comfort for the future.

You can read ‘Tonnage’ in Issue Eight of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.

Giselle Leeb‘s stories have appeared in Best British Short Stories 2017 (Salt), Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Ambit, Mslexia, Litro, and other publications.

© Giselle Leeb, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.