Telling the tale

Issue 2/2007 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

Half of the art of writing lies in not telling the reader everything, writes Kaari Utrio, historian and writer of historical fiction

Fantasy is a curse to science but the lifeblood of literature. The combination of these two opposing factors lies at the core of my work. In the expression, ‘historical novel’, the emphasis is on the word ‘novel’. To me a novel is a story, and I am a storyteller. This is an important basic definition for the genre of literature I write.

Writing a novel is scholarship and the seeing of visions. The oppressively strict and joyless Finnish attitude to life easily condemns stories that rise above everyday reality. Nevertheless people  – even contemporary people – fortunately­ need fantasy, dreams, adventures and passions as they need bread.

In the historical novel, the line between the real and the imagined was as fick­le as in life and death. Just as the dead were present in requiem masses and votive candles, the world of fantasy and magic interpolated itself in harsh everyday life. Wishes were magic, coincidences wonders, the movement of a leaf an omen.

In the same way, in the historical novel the line between the real and the im­agined wavers like torchlight on a wall. The merging of fantasy and reality is one of the essential features of the historical novel.

A novelist is not like a scholar who knows everything about his subject. The author must know something about everything in order to be able to create an image of the whole of life. A scholar is a well-driller who makes a deep and narrow hole in knowledge. The writer is like a skater on a broad icy plain.

Scholarship is lovely. The danger is not being able to stop, but drilling ever deeper into a field which is extraordinarily wide. It is easy to flee beginning to write, that dreadful step, by just continuing to research.

It is no doubt precisely my training as a scholar that has made my working method pedantically systematic and perfectionist. Life is a constant struggle between a perfect outer skin and the creative frenzy that rages within.

I often become so enthusiastic about my subject that I want to tell my readers everything. Then the novel becomes a scholarly story, and it loses its literary nature. As I write, I fear my own enthusiasm as an educator more than any incapacity to write.

Of my research materials, I use perhaps one tenth. But it is necessary to be in command of the rest lest the setting become a series of environmental stickers. I must know the world I describe as well as my own back yard.

Way back around the campfire, storytellers built stories that were larger than life. They created monumental characters, saints and demons, surging emotions, immoderate virtues and terrible vices. They crowned their tales with wondrous coincidences or extraordinary miracles. Their public loved their tales. There are no tales without an audience. The story takes place between the teller and the listener. It is a mutual process of creation.

Thus I, too, love my audience. In my study, I can hear my readers breathing.

When people stop to read, listen to or watch a story, they also place themselves in a particular state of mind. They relax and at the same time become more attentive, isolate themselves from the everyday and open the doors to fantasy and adventure, romance, excitement and empathy.

Listeners to stories have certain expectations. They know the laws of story­telling and how to follow its progress. They know that main characters cannot be killed until the end, if at all. They know that if the goodies die, the baddies will also die, and that evil always in some way gets its just deserts.

Breaking these laws provokes a feeling of injustice in listeners. I have thought that perhaps the fundamental function ofa story is to strengthen the listener’s hope of the world’s final logic and justness. For it is only with such a hope that we can really live our lives.

A story is like a game which the teller and the listener play together. The teller, however skilful he may be, cannot play alone. The listeners on the other hand, however well they know the rules of storytelling, need the teller’s personal vision and fantasy.

The story exacerbates, exaggerates, gilds and darkens, like a fairy-tale. Its writ­ing, indeed, demands a storyteller’s inspiration. Stories are of no use, but there is much pleasure to be had from them. For me, the story is literature’s oldest, most persistent and lovable form.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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