Welcome to Writers in the Attic for 2021 and kicking off the year is WA writer Julie Sprigg.
Julie talks about turning the journals she wrote while working as a physiotherapist in Ethiopia into a memoir. Writing about a country and culture that’s not our own and telling other people’s stories is, as Julie says, a privilege. Read on to see how she managed it.
And don’t forget to leave a comment here or on any of my social media pages to win a copy of Julie’s book!
Julie Sprigg is a Perth based author whose debut book Small Steps: A Physio in Ethiopia was shortlisted for the 2018 T.A.G Hungerford award. She worked as a physiotherapist for ten years before switching to a career in foreign aid with programs improving human rights of people with disabilities. After years of regular travel to China, India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Vanuatu and Ethiopia, Julie returned to Perth and now evaluates government programs to overcome social disadvantage. When not writing or working she can be found reading a picture book atlas with her young son and delighting in domestic adventures.
The Privilege of Telling Other People’s Stories
Most of the time I wish I picked an easier book to write.
I don’t know if everyone’s experience of writing memoir involves hours of existential angst over bowls of ice-cream (‘the sugar helps me think’) like mine did. But by the time I realised the joy no longer outweighed the terror, I had come too far in the story to abandon it.
Sometimes I loved the alchemy of writing memoir, of distilling a real-life person into words and sentences so they could rise off the page as a three-dimensional character. It’s an enormous privilege to shape a story using this magic, and it was the weight of this honour that paralysed me.
It didn’t start out like this. The words tumbled out in the journal entries that became the basis for my manuscript. I woke to an early alarm and wrote as the sun came up and the morning stars faded, then went to my day job on the wards of an Ethiopian university hospital and teaching in the country’s first ever physiotherapy degree. Then I wrote about my day, as the dusk set in and the stars came out.
I filled notebooks with everything I saw, heard, tasted, felt, thought and wished. My days were such a barrage of new experiences that it was easier to write than not to. There’s a quote I transcribed into my journal at the time: ‘Writing is an act of control in an otherwise baffling universe’. I know it’s a quote because I’ve drawn fancy scrolls around it and I wouldn’t have thought of anything that clever myself. I don’t know who said it, but they were spot on: I wrote to make meaning out of my days, and I accidentally filled my notebook with other people.
The paralysis started when I tried to edit all these stories into one cohesive narrative. I had stories of the kids I treated in the hospital and the nuns I lived and worked with. Of arson attacks on my physiotherapy students. Of life and death decisions, and strangers rising up in the streets. These were all framed in a culture and history that I was only a bystander to.
Uniting all these elements into ‘my story’ felt like trying to assemble a thousand-piece jigsaw after someone has thrown away the box. I put together the edges and assumed that, piece by piece, the picture would emerge. I arranged, re-arranged, whittled it down and built it up, draft after draft but I couldn’t get it right. My stumbling block was always the same: How would I use all these stories to faithfully construct meaning?
I read moral philosophy, fundamentalism and nihilism texts (one of each), until I realised I couldn’t search for meaning alone. I cornered friends at parties for existential discussions before joining an existentialist book club to meet new friends to voluntarily participate in the same conversations.
I didn’t find any clarity until I read Mary Karr’s book, The Art of Memoir, where she says:
‘Most morally ominous: from the second you choose one event over the other, you’re shaping the past’s meaning.’
The moral responsibility of getting it right, and the question of whether it was even right to construct my own meaning from other people’s pasts, almost made me abandon the manuscript.
I worked on it and set it aside many times over nine years. When I surrendered, and allowed myself to write other people’s stories, my own story flowed and the meaning started to shape itself.
But when I thought about getting it right, I felt so burdened I couldn’t go on. I shoved the manuscript into the metaphorical bottom drawer, which is to say, I hid it in a folder on Google Drive.
But the years ticked over and the story didn’t leave me, and, one day, I opened the folder and started again. This time, writing it felt joyous.
Now the book’s published, there’s a different kind of joy: there’s the joy of readers saying they can’t wait to visit Ethiopia, which I was honoured to call home for two years.
And there’s the joy, and honour, of strangers telling me how the characters and their stories have stayed with them after they’ve finished reading my book. That is the biggest joy of all.
Julie has donated a copy of her book, Small Steps: A Physio in Ethiopia to giveaway.
To enter, simply comment on the blog or any of my social media posts about Julie’s book.
The winner will be drawn 12pm (WST) this Thursday, 28 January, and will be chosen randomly.
International entries are welcome, but we can only post to an Australian address.