That’s life

4 March 2011 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

 In this series Finnish authors ponder their profession. If this is writing, there’s no method in its madness: Markku Pääskynen finds he wants to write as life allows, not bend his life to suit his writing

I was born in 1973. I’ve written six novels, and I’m working on my seventh. I’ve written short stories and essays, and translated. That may sound productive, but it isn’t: I can’t stand to sit in front of the computer for more than a couple of hours a day.

My work is elsewhere – in everyday chores: going to the store, taking out the trash, fixing meals, washing dishes, cleaning, playing with the kids. Normal days are full of work and messing around. And my literary work has to fit in with that. I don’t have it in me to write methodically. I do know how to keep deadlines and meet contracts, but the methodicalness is lacking.

I haven’t had a desk for ages; my computer is always lying somewhere different, and I’m always lying somewhere different. I like to be surrounded by noise, whether it be the kids raising a ruckus or the din of a coffee shop. I also like the peace of night, when everyone else is sleeping, and I feel like in all the world I’m the only one sitting up awake. I often write about insomnia, but in my own life it isn’t really about that – it’s just that I don’t want to sleep.

My novel Vastavuuksia (‘Equivalencies’, 2008) was criticised for how charged with anxiety it was. The characters drifting in the book wallow in their angst, unable to control it. Some thought the author must be suffering from the same feelings: depression, grief, anger, jealousy. I never respond to insinuations like that, because I believe in people’s ability to think. Depression is a poor impetus for writing a depressing novel. Vastaavuuksia is morality play. Few critics or readers realised this. The book doesn’t describe how I live – it describes how I would not like to live and hope no one would live.

I’ve seriously wondered about author Erno Paasilinna’s famous comment. According to him, an author should live a certain kind of life in order to become an author. I don’t think there is a certain kind of life, there’s just life.

Would I write better if I would have experienced gruelling tribulations in my life? Would my sentences be brilliant if I would have been an orphan, my stories believable if I would have seen the horrors of war? I doubt it, because I don’t believe that suffering ennobles anyone. It cripples, depresses, turns bitter and suicidal.

I’m referring here to prose in particular, to where it comes from. Maybe poetry is different – or then again maybe not. In order for me to write, I need stability and balance, which makes it possible to write a novel-length book. It doesn’t work without stability and balance in my everyday life. Life isn’t always as smooth as freshly fallen snow, and it shouldn’t be. Maybe it’s a question of basic safety: when I venture into unknown waters, I want to be safe.

For example, when I was writing my novel Vihan päivä (‘The day of wrath’, 2006). It’s based on real events, on a depressed mother who murders her child and husband because of financial troubles. I would argue that when an author is dealing with a subject like this, he has to be standing on firm psychological ground. And I don’t mean training in that field – I mean the ability to analyse real events and the people immersed in those events, the ability to stay in your own right mind when faced with those real, tragic things and to want to throw yourself into them up to your neck, to see them and understand them. Back when I was thinking about this woman and what she did, I was bothered by the grief porn paraded about by the media regardless of whether they represented the gutter press or the state television newscasts. With hindsight I can say that I couldn’t not write about that topic.

And not writing? There are things I never intend to write about. They are my own business, and don’t belong to anyone else. I’ve also left things unwritten for other reasons, for example because of ethical concerns. Unfortunately I haven’t succeeded very well at that. Perhaps amorality is a natural part of the author’s life.

‘And I have a wide, deep cruel streak,’ Augusten Burroughs writes in his book Magical Thinking (2004). I’ve noticed that same cruelty in myself. It isn’t indifference, just a way of seeing things. Often it is words written on paper to ask myself whether I really view people in such a cruel, merciless way.

These are difficult questions for me. I consider them now and then, and haven’t come to any conclusion. Maybe there isn’t one. And besides, liminality is a part of an author’s work, being in an intermediate space, not belonging to any world, being outside. These are clichés, I know, but clichés come close to truth.

If you like you can easily connect this or that author to conditions such as fear of closeness, sexual dysfunction, obsessive compulsive behaviour, insufferable envy, fear of social situations and mania.

But are those qualities fundamental or interesting in terms of literature itself? They aren’t. Instead, they may help the author contemplate what to write about and what not to write about.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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