I have no formal training in creative writing but I do have a great deal of training in visual art — I completed a degree in fine art and an advanced diploma in bronze casting.
For most of my life I thought of myself as a visual artist and it was only about eight years ago that I discovered that I loved writing fiction. It was like one of those stories where someone, while tidying an attic, opens a dusty chest to discover a magical treasure hidden inside. The ability to write fiction was a side of myself I had known nothing about till that moment. It was a wonderful surprise.
Since then, I’ve written seven novels and one collection of short stories.Writing has become the focus of my life and I no longer hesitate to describe myself as a writer.
But my visual art still plays a part in my writing process. I like to sketch characters to find out what they are like. Sometimes the drawing is more abstract and helps me visualise the structure of a plot.
The most direct link between my writing and my visual art happened some years ago when I wrote some very short stories and used them as a basis for drawings and sculptures.
For example, here is the story I wrote called “Nameless Girl”.
There was a girl who lived alone in a palace under the sea. She had no father, no mother, no sisters, brothers or friends. There was no one to talk to her or tell her what to do. She did not even know what her name was because there was no one to give her a name.
Although she was alone, she was not the only living thing in the palace. Starfish covered the walls and crabs scuttled among the broken tiles. An octopus had moved into the stairwell. Everywhere the girl went, little fish followed her. The larger fish drifted slowly through the rooms and corridors, eyeing her like an unwelcome guest at an elaborate but silent party.
She often sat looking out from the walls of the roofless throne. Sometimes the shadows of whales came between her and the watery sky of the surface. Once she saw the shape of a small boat. Was it small or was it just far away?
And then she would walk down into the dark, from room to room, looking for a clue, for a key, a book, a letter, to explain why she was there.
From this, I drew two panels of a wordless story:
And I also made a small sculpture of the girl out of polymer clay painted with oils. Making the tiny clothing was an interesting challenge!
A short story from my “Strange Neighbours” collection also turned into a drawing and a doll. Here is an extract from that story, describing “Antjie Donder”.
Lauren climbed onto the couch and opened the window. She pushed her face against the burglar bars. The voice was coming closer. There was a noise like someone shaking a cutlery drawer and the tinny thumping of a small radio. Somebody was singing:
“My naam is Antjie Donder, Antjie, Antjie Donder”
First came a shopping trolley, filled to overflowing with bags, newspapers and various bits of junk. Behind the trolley was a woman,broad as an oak tree and dressed in an ancient ball gown that strained across her chest and shoulders. Layers of plastic sheeting was wrapped around her waist. She sang as she came.
“Antie, Antjie Donder!”
She stopped when she was level with Lauren’s window and switched off the hissing radio. Lauren looked down at her in fascination. She had never seen anyone like this before. The woman’s face was as brown as leather and looked as tough as an old shoe. She had a great beak of a nose and her hair stood away from her head in coils like knotted horns. She looked up at Lauren and smiled.
“Good morning, Madam! Got any broken things for me? Toys? Electric?”
Lauren laughed. “No, I’m not the Madam!”
“So where’s the Madam, then?”
Oops, thought Lauren. Not supposed to speak to strangers. But what now? It would be rude not to respond. “My mother is not home.”
The woman smiled. She turned her head a little, peering past her hooked nose like bird looking at a worm. “Not home? That’s sad.”
Antjie Donder goes on to be a kind of “Cat in the Hat” character, introducing chaos into Lauren’s neat, ordered home. The full version of Antjie’s song goes like this:
My naam is Antjie Donder
Ek weet waaroor jy wonder
Ek staan terwyl jy wegkyk
Ek kyk terwyl jy wegsluip
Ek stap terwyl jy stil bly
En ek weet waarom jy weg bly
Which translates roughly to:
My name is Antjie Donder
I know what you wonder
I stand while you look away
I look while you sneak away
I walk while you stay still
And I know why you stay away
Here is the drawing I did of Antjie Donder. Notice Lauren in the window:
And here is the puppet version of Antjie:
One of the other stories in that same collection of stories also turned into a drawing and sculpture. This one was “Mevrou Karwats.” I wrote the description of her in Afrikaans, my first language:
Mevrou Karwats hou haar kombuis skoon. Sy vee die stukkies vere en skulpe tussen die stoof plate weg. Alles word gewas en netjies weggebêre – houtlepels in die koper pot, messe in die laai. Sy tel al die blaarkies en dorings, en die fyn beentjies uit die wasbak drein en pak hulle op ‘n skoon vaddoek om uit te droog.
Die bottelkies in haar speserye rak is alfabeties gerangskik: aalwyn, bitter boontjies, borrie, duine mot, duif pootjies, eend veere, gister-voete, haas baard, haas handjies, kuiken veertjies, neut, mot-stoffies, peper-bos, roos dorings, roosmaryn, slakkies (heel), slakkies (klontjies), stink-riets stroop, traak-my-nie, vink oorkies en vis tande.
In English, this becomes:
Mrs Karwats keeps her kitchen clean. She wipes away the bits of feather and shell between the stove plates. Everything gets washed and neatly put away – wooden spoons in the copper pot, knives in the drawer. She picks all the leaves and thorns, and tiny bones out of the basin drain and sets them on a clean washcloth to dry.
The little bottles in her spice rack are in alphabetical order: Aloe, bitter beans, turmeric, dune moth, dove paws, goose feathers, yesterday-feet, hare-beard, hare hands, chick feathers, nutmeg, moth-dust, pepper-bush, rose thorns, rosemary, snails (whole), snails (lumps), stink reed syrup, I-don’t-care, finch ears and fish teeth.
This is the drawing I did of Mrs Karwats:
And her doll:
And finally, “Stefan”, who only exists in this fragment of writing, but he might find himself into the book I’m currently writing, a science fiction story that has quite a few artificial characters:
Stefan found ways to forget.
At first it was like a game. Like playing with a candle. Passing your hand back and forth through the flame, each time a little slower, a little closer. At other times he fled before the tide of memory. And he thought: Why not delete, or write over the old regrets and construct the past that should have been?
He thought of his mind as a room like a box, like the shell of a snail in which other rooms are folded, nested and ordered. Or possibly it grew inwards like the spiral of a clockwork fern, each part individual, meshing but distinct, slotted, fitting.
But when he plied his tools he found instead a tapestry, a knotted mass that gave alarmingly to his tugging. It laddered and unravelled and came apart.
Masha du Toit
Masha du Toit writes fantasy and science fiction, set in alternate world South Africa. She trained as a visual artist, majoring in sculpture and went on to study bronzecasting. After many years teaching the creative use of digital technology, she finally focused on her true passion: writing her own stories. She's inspired by all kinds of magic, from the worlds of Hayao Miyazaki, Ursula Le Guin and CJ Cherryh, to those of James Herriot and Gerald Durrell.