Subterranean, pre-verbal

Issue 1/2007 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

Claes Andersson, poet and psychiatrist, ponders the difficulties of writing, and how to get down to it. These are extracts from the collection of articles, Luova mieli. Kirjoittamisen vimma ja vastus (‘The creative mind. The rage and burden of writing’, Kirjapaja, 2002)

Some subjects or ideas need years on the back burner before they submit to being written about. The wise writer learns the basic rule ofthe good midwife: don’t panic, don’t force, wait, and help when the time for birth is at hand, but know also when a Caesarean section is advisable or even necessary.

I myself have concluded that ambivalence and the serious displacement activities I that hinder starting to write derive principally from the fact that the leap or plunge into the unknown, into one’s own depths, causes terror and anxiety at the same time as offering both an enticement and a challenge. The writer may be compared to Odysseus, who allows himself to be bound to the ship’s mast in order not to fall sway to the seductive temptation of the sirens. The writer is instinctively wary of surrendering to the demonic and overwhelming forces which he knows reside within him. The writer may sense that he does not wish, or may not even be able, to return completely to his adult state after experiencing the profound pleasures and oceanic satisfactions of his subterranean, subconscious forces.

All our tales, stories and creative endeavours are stories about ourselves. We repeat the same tale throughout our lives, from the cradle to the grave. Before it can speak, a small child communicates its basic needs with its body, its gestures and the sounds it makes. These pre-verbal layers in us are an important part of our personality, comprising its ‘pre-conscious’ or ‘sub-conscious’ part, with which we seek to make contact when we do creative work…. The vacuum which makes creative work possible and which is its precondition and engine is at the same time the state in which we experience the greatest uncertainty, grief and mute­ness. It is a state – or a state of mind – that everyone has experienced. It is the moment when we stretched out our hand seeking acceptance by another person, only to find it withheld. It is a state of deep shame, unworthiness and fear. But it is also a source of joy, hope and creativity. It is – in the words ofthe Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf – the expression ‘on the face of a blind man when he felt with his hand something that his mouth remembered.’ It is a place of wonders in which one can see the desert flower*.

A subconscious desire to escape writing often seeks apparently noble and altruistic forms. I find that I have agreed to some administrative task or trip whose intention is good, but which effectively prevents me from doing the work I should (and which I would like to) do: writing. I have found myself at the smelly end of a drinking binge. I have encountered myself at the sales, buying a coffee-pot cosy which at that moment seemed absolutely urgent and necessary. Anything at all seems to do as an obstacle to what I would like to do most of all, what I like most of all: writing.

The only way I have found to overcome the obstacles and start writing is a deci­sive beginning. If the result isn’t worthwile, at least it will be something else might emerge. Maybe poem translations. Or columns. In writing, if anything, the old zen wisdom is to be found: only when you stop trying to reach something will you achieve it.

Once, after a three-month fruitless spell of writer’s block, I tried to give in and, instead of trying to get plastered, I threw my useless sheets of paper into the bin and called a good friend, asking him to accompany me to drown my sorrows and my complete failure. At the same time as I chatted to him about this and that, I wrote, half-unconsciously, a couple of phrases on a piece of paper. I put the phone down, looked at the piece of paper, and here it was! There were the first lines of a series of poems, which turned out to be important to me, and in my opinion also worthwhile. This is how it began:

The sun! The sun! shout the children.
But
I only see the sun.
The crocuses have flowered and one snowdrop. The bear rages in the forest.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

* Edith Södergran (1892-1923): ‘We ought to love life’s long hours of sickness / and narrow years of longing / like the brief moments when the desert flowers.’ From the poem ‘Ingenting’ (‘Nothing’,) published in Landet som icke är (‘The land that is not’), 1925. Translation by David McDuff, in Complete Poems. Edith Södergran (Bloodaxe Books, 1984)

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