The search goes on

Issue 4/2007 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

The Finlandia Prize-winning author Kjell Westö recalls his literary adolescence, and the moment ­– of a dark January night – when he stopped worrying about writer’s block and began to write

When I was in my twenties, my urge to write was very strong. I was driven, almost consumed, by this ever-present zeal, which tore me apart nearly as inexorably and effectively as love did. But I wrote precious little. Now, some twenty years later, I have a general idea about the traps I so unknowingly walked into.

First, I was impatient. I wasn’t mentally prepared for the mandatory period of incubation, the one that stories require to grow inside their future creator. ‘It kinda grows on you’ is a colloquial expression of the feeling you get when a work of art takes its due time to travel from your eyes or ears to your heart. The same thing happens when a storyteller waits for his or her story to travel from the conceiving areas of the brain to the heart, where a transformation will occur, a transformation that allows the storyteller to breathe life into the story.

I was often unable to fuse the need for research, knowledge an reflection with the more urgent need to take the plunge and just start writing. Things got even more complicated when I realised that my imagination was much faster than my command of my mother tongue. I usually had to wait a long time, sometimes years, before I found – or stumbled upon – the linguistic intensity the pictures and scenes in my head demanded. And by the way, I still have to wait.

I was also hampered by my literary pretensions. At 25, I was a university drop-out from two faculties. I come from an upstart family, and although my parents were interested in the arts, especially music and literature, there were no deep traditions to extract self-confidence from. Hence my exaggerated need to show off and prove to the world that I was able to create Art and Literature with very capital letters, a need that caused my nervous system to crumble under the pressure.

There were countless writer’s blocks and other deadlock situations, and I wasn’t liberated from them until – in a mood more akin to desperation than to joy – I retrieved the ‘Just go for it, you dumb fuck!’ attitude with which I had written lyrics for my punk rock group when I was nineteen.

If there was a pivotal moment in my transformation from an ambitious but erratic young writer in the making to a craftsman with a mission, it came during the years between my first short story collections and my first novel. The country’s economy went into recession and my own life seemed to conform to the general mood. There wasn’t a lot of writing assignments on offer, and if an opportunity presented itself the pay was always poor. I didn’t earn any money, I wrote very little and my drunken binges became more and more frequent.

Then, suddenly, I got a grip on myself. There was a dark, crisp January night when I just got tired of my writer’s blocks and my rambling inner monologues and the self-pity expressed in them. I had a few glasses of wine, shed a tear or two and then wrote a short passage that seemed to finally capture the feelings of loneliness and wonder I had had as a boy in the suburbs of Helsinki. During the following six months I wrote my first novel, the one that had eluded me for years.

The folllowing thought – sometimes attributed to the German poet Novalis ­has been of great importance to me: ‘We can never fully understand ourselves, but we can become so much more than we can ever understand.’

What broke the deadlock, then? I simply got rid of some of my false pretensions and realised, finally, that I was writing for my own and for the reader’s – the book lover’s – sake, not for some haughty critic who had wounded my pride in the past. I realised that I had to have the courage to write my kind of books, not books excessively quoting postmodern French philosophers, even if that meant laying myself open to accusations of nostalgia and sentimentality.

Years later, I found a beautiful expression of a thought in an essay on Joseph Conrad by the English writer Alan Sillitoe. I don’t remember Sillitoe’s exact words, but the leading idea is nevertheless rendered correctly: ‘After the tribulations of early life, and having accepted that there is nothing to do but write, the artist is empty of any explicable personality, and passes the rest of his existence trying to find out who he is, creating one person after another in the hope that one of them will be himself. It is part of the unspoken treaty that such a discovery can never be made, though the search goes on for as long as he continues to write’.

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