Slowly does it – or not?

9 April 2010 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder their profession. One day Kristina Carlson – a self-confessed slow writer – found her imagination so strongly inhabited by one of her own, as yet non-existent, characters that she was finally impelled to complete her novel

‘The answer grows like the spring light. / In my desk drawer there’s something, important. / I slowly remember it.’ I wrote these words in my first published work, my collection of poetry Hämärän valo (‘Light of dusk’) from 1986. I was born in 1949, so I was something of a late bloomer.

Still I had been writing ever since I was a child. After a ten-year break, I published my first children’s book under a pseudonym. In the space of three years after that, a total of twelve books appeared in the Anni series. In 1999 I published my first novel, Maan ääreen (‘To the end of the earth’). Another ten years passed; my second novel, Herra Darwinin puutarhuri (‘Mr Darwin’s gardener’), was published last autumn.

I’ve often been asked – more often than I have asked myself – why I publish so rarely. I don’t find writing difficult, but it is difficult to write well. For me, writing well involves clarity, precision, brightness, finding just the right mood and rhythm. If it were simply a case of the classic ‘murder your darlings’ problem, it could easily be resolved through a process of sufficiently pruning the text, but such pruning would leave us with nothing but a bare tree.

Writing is such a synthetic process that it is hard to describe, as it is inherently bound up with one’s own language and mind.

Nowadays authors like to make a point of their own professionalism. Some start work at nine o’clock in the morning and continue until three in the afternoon. At the risk of mystifying and romanticising an author’s work, I admit that I am incapable of such self-discipline. I write when my soul tells me to write.

The material for my second novel built up slowly over a number of years. I would write in the evenings, at night, as once my funding had run out I had to support myself writing book reviews and columns and doing other literature-related odd-jobs. That being said, such external reasons are still almost nothing but excuses. This too may sound overly romanticised, but a novel will take as much time as it requires.

First of all, I needed a title. ‘Mr Darwin’s gardener’ is a title that just seemed to pop into my head. At the time I was living temporarily in a small village in the countryside; I used to look out of my window at the river bathing in the glow of the setting sun, behind a row of slender, bare tree trunks. And the name appeared. I had to write the book in that name, and after only a few seconds I knew that the title was not allegorical, but that the novel would tell the story of a real gardener working in Charles Darwin’s garden in the village of Downe in Kent.

Like a magnet, the title began to attract people and events, but all this happened slowly, little by little. I became frustrated that these imaginary villagers wouldn’t leave me in peace – and they wouldn’t give in to me either. At times I wondered whether I should shelve the project altogether.

Some time later I was in Berlin and went for a walk in the botanical gardens in Dahlem. All of a sudden I realised that there were tears in my eyes; I missed Lennart, the protagonist from my first novel, who eventually dies. And at the same time I missed Thomas, the man from my second novel, who had not yet been brought to life. I couldn’t bring myself to shelve Thomas, to leave him in a no-man’s-land somewhere between my head and the stuff on the page.

Reality finally gave me the kick I needed, as I daydreamed and emoted and wrote at leisure. In the summer of 2009 I was to turn sixty. I found myself thinking about this on New Year’s Eve and realised that I had to pull myself up by the scruff of the neck, up and out of the swamp. I began writing the novel using all the material that had accumulated over the years, and the moment was ripe. I achieved the kind of flow that brought my material together and honed it. I would write for many hours a day, barely having a shower or getting dressed.

Now a character called William N. is demanding my attention. He expresses himself in an irascible, croaky voice, because he’s not a particularly nice character. For personal reasons it has been weeks since I was last able to pay William any attention, but by this point I believe and know that, in my subconscious, he will be writing himself all the while.

Perhaps it is this sense of trust that keeps me going as a writer. It goes without saying that I hope I can have the mental and financial peace to concentrate fully on my writing. And it is not a question of having to meet publishing deadlines. Publishers and the literary world may try to pressure writers, but fictional characters couldn’t care less about such things.

I recently took comfort from watching a documentary about the filmmaker Wim Wenders. He confessed to being a very taciturn person. His friends and former wives said much the same thing. His latest wife, Donata, said that at first it felt as though Wim were not really listening to what she had to say. But a few days later, after giving the matter due consideration and without using any superfluous words, he would respond. In our hectic modern lives, such slowness and economy of expression seems very attractive.

If you’re not Wenders’ wife, that is.

Translated by David Hackston

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