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23 October 2014 | Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, authors discuss the difficulties of their trade. Jari Järvelä finds it difficult to stop gathering source material which then gets piled in towers on his desk and in sacks around it. He knows that it’s got to stop though – for when it does, the stories will finally emerge, and life is a bliss… for a moment

When I was younger I thought that writing a novel began with the moment when I sat down at my desk and pressed a key for the first time. A. Hmmm…no, H. No, let’s make that S. No no no, I need a more original beginning…Z!

That’s not the case. The writing of a novel begins between two and twenty years before the choice of the first letter and the first word. Sometimes longer.

In the case of my novel Särkyvää (‘Fragile’, 2014), I know the exact moment of its birth.

Before I began to make a career as an author, I spent a year as a teacher at Hamari school in Porvoo. It was the beginning of the 1990s. Hamari was an old sawmill community on the sea, full of wooden houses more than a century old and motor boats put-putting toward the horizon. The headmaster looked more like a sea dog than a teacher; one morning he announced that it was his fortieth birthday. After that he sat down on the staff-room sofa, fell into deep thought and suddenly ejaculated, ‘Why the hell does a person have to gather so much junk in their life?!’

The headmaster lived on the other side of a playground in a wooden house; I had been there. Long attic corridors filled with things were, according to him, archaeological strata. The further you excavated, according to him, the earlier the phases of his life you would uncover.

On the staff-room sofa, after his outburst, the headmaster remembered how he had moved in with his future wife for the first time. All the things he then owned fitted on the back of a bicycle, into one cardboard box. ‘What a happy thought. There’s no going back, no…,’he muttered.

I wrote that sofa moment down in my notebook. Such notebooks have followed me throughout my life, although they have grown smaller. Nowadays I use notebooks the size of my palm; I always carry one in my pocket. My notebooks are full of conversations I have overheard, jottings, drawings. Ninety per cent of the things I write down remain unused. I don’t know in advance what will have a new life.

The cardboard-box remark did. In the coming years I moved house, and when I did the moment in Hamari always came to mind. What if all the things of my life could fit into a cardboard box, what would that be like? A couple of decades went by before the thought and a cardboard box full of junk ripened into a story and a novel whose name was Särkyvää.

The period of time between the idea for Särkyvää and its realisation was long, but not exceptional. Between the original idea and the act of writing there is, for every book, a delay struggle whose name is the gathering of source material. That, too, varies in length.

A writing person tends to fall in love with their sources, deeply and headlong. That is the case with me. It is unavoidable. When you begin to write a new book, you have to have found an idea that is so interesting that you can work with it for one, two or even three years of writing, sometimes longer. The idea is the heart of the matter and of the book, and when you have a good idea or subject, you have time and license to dive headfirst into all kinds of sources. You have time and license to sift, interview, study old photos and texts and books.

At this point you still have no idea of the plot. For me, this gathering and sifting of sources is an enjoyable phase, like a rising intoxication. You could stay in this state almost indefinitely. I have written about graffiti artists, chimney sweeps and loggers, and each time I have had to start my information-gathering from scratch. It is an explorer’s work, the charting of a new, unknown continent.

Finally all sorts of interesting background information and little stories sway in towers of different height on my work desk and shelves. There are also five miscellaneous bags of sources around my desk; the sixth bag is half-full.

At this point I awake suddenly one night, walk into my study in the moonlight and realise, amid the paper towers that I will never be able to use more than a fraction of my sources in my book. It is time to wrench myself into the real work of writing. My rising intoxication turns in the same moment into a falling one.

I rarely go back to my sources at this point. I trust that I will remember what is essential for the book.

My mood changes, as I begin to write, from enthusiastic to unsure. In the early weeks it feels as if I were groping from dawn to dusk in a dark, dense forest without a torch. Or, like Särkyvää’s Teemu: as if I were driving an old Lada jalopy across Europe without a map. Teemu’s intention is to kill himself on a bull’s horns in the Pamplona bull-run, and that’s what I feel like too, sometimes, at this stage.

I must trust that when, in writing, I have bumped into enough tree trunks and protruding branches, I will find my way out of the forest. After walking accidentally in circles, getting lost and falling into minefields.The book will find its language, the characters will gradually develop from mere names into flesh and blood. At some point I begin to have the feeling that they talk and squabble behind me without my having any influence. Then I know I am going in the right direction.

I am generally a good deal more than halfway through the manuscript before I fall into a state of the outrageous joyousness of writing. The pieces begin to click together, and the last weeks of writing, after a year or two of struggle, are generally like drinking champagne. Afterwards the journey through the dark forest seems extremely logical. The path was always visible, after all!

But books are not written with the power of hindsight. They are written in a long, blind moment, when you must feel your way forward.

The writer must love that long, blind moment more than his sources or his idea. He must have the energy to slosh through the dense forest as he writes and enjoy his uncertainty. It is only thus that fresh writing is born, at the same time fragile and powerful.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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