In search of the spirit

13 November 2009 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder their trade. Tuomas Kyrö – author of the extraordinary novelistic chronicle of the birth of capitalism Benjamin Kivi, which you can read here – found himself lost for words. Liberation came with the realisation that, unlike in television, in books it is the writer, and the reader, who are in charge, and the only limits are those of the human imagination

In May 2009, after a year of writing, I held in my hand the manuscript of a novel whose plot and characters were complete. There was a subject, theme and the occasional good passage, but something was badly wrong.

When I swapped roles, writer for reader, I realised that my text did not touch the skin, and certainly did not get under the skin. I had wanted do more than raise a smile; I had thought I was writing a book that would make its readers want to turn the page, I had wanted to provoke, to cause laughter and even perhaps tears. Now all that my text provoked in the reader – me – was embarrassment and boredom.

What was wrong?

The narrative device was bland. Through it, the language of the entire book, and thereby the spirit of the entire book, was wrong.

The novel was based on a three-part television series which I had written earlier, and on the second reading I realised how clearly that original version was visible in the text. What had been intended to work as images and scenes simply did not breathe as prose. What had been genre-typical structure in the television script felt, on paper, like plot devices that had been forced on to paper.

I knew what was expected. The drama had to be made to work in its own terms as prose, the images had to be turned into language, visual nuances into linguistic ones, but I did not know what to do to make all this happen. The book was scheduled for publication the same autumn, so time was short.

I did a rewrite, but could not find the right angle or the right voice. The text felt like an unwieldy pile, and the right place for it was the oven. I called my editor and told him that this might not make a book for next autumn, it might not make a book at all, that perhaps this writer’s career would turn out to last all of eight years. ‘It will. It always has. You’re doing something that has never been done before.’

A big ask, and a lot of trust. But the trust of others doesn’t help when you don’t trust yourself. I requested an extension. I went to the loo. I grabbed a book from the shelf on the way, and sat on the seat. Without glancing at the book’s cover, I opened it at random.

God sat in a filling-station café in a Helsinki suburb. A couple of pages later Marlon Brando wandered along a street of post-war housing in the same city, looking at Finnish family home-owners.

God in Pakila? Marlon Brando in Maunula?

The book was Kari Hotakainen’s Sydänkohtauksia (‘Heart attacks’), and in an instant those few pages untied the tangled knots in my narrative strategy.

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I had seen walls and limits in places where all limits are absent, where everything is allowed, where the setting can be Egypt, the Second World War, Pakila, space, a village school or a witch school. In prose, a dead person, or one yet unborn, can speak, decades can pass in one sentence or it can take four hundred pages to describe the events of a single minute. As I writer, I have the powers of a circus ringmaster, a clown and an emperor.

When you write prose, you don’t have to consider the price or location of a scene, you don’t have to think about the text’s relation to any other reality than the reality it creates. Its foundations can be made of cement, marshmallow or feathers, and the structure stays in place if the reader so wishes. The book is born in my head; it lives its life in the reader’s.

I have written five novels, and in each of them the same thing has happened, in slightly varied forms. The act of writing progresses from the conventional, from unwilling work, toward liberation. In the best case, language, story and writing itself combine to offer an element of detachment and surprise that is the same thing as the work’s spirit. The only limitations of the novel’s content are the covers; the space between them devours between 77 and 1500 pages of anything at all.

I began the book again; the voice was taken by the figure of the Trainer, who is a combination of the wise old Indians of B-movie Westerns, god, the devil and perhaps myself. I sweated it out before the book was ready, but in the end I beat the deadline. One reader said that he read the book at a single sitting and found himself out of breath. For a sports novel, that is some feedback.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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