On writing and not writing

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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?!’ More…

Breadcrumbs and elephants

27 March 2014 | Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder the pros and cons of their profession. Alexandra Salmela operates in two languages, her native Slovakian and Finnish, which has become her literary language. Adventure and torture alternate as she attempts to shape reality into writing

I had started to write before I knew how. With fat wax crayons, in big stick-letters, I scratched my stories in old diaries. There were lots of pictures. From the very beginning, I wrote both poetry and prose. At 11 I didn’t finish my great sea-adventure novel, but at 12 I was already writing my memoirs. They, too, somehow remained unfinished.

Writing is… I wanted to write fun, but in the end I’m not quite sure about that. Writing is adventure and liberation and terribly hard work. Torture of the imagination and the pale copying of real events. Reading is a way to escape reality and at the same time a route to the sources of reality. By writing, you can shape reality in your own image: it’s your own character fault if the result is ugly and depressing.

If I were to write a pink world, it would be so sugary that it would make everyone sick, me and other people. More…

Girls just want to have fun

3 October 2013 | Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder the complexities of their profession. Susanne Ringell describes her work as sailing on sometimes stormy seas – without a skipper certificate, but with conviction

We are such stuff as dreams are made on; / and our little life is rounded with a sleep. (William Shakespeare, The Tempest.) In Swedish – my mother tongue and the language in which my pencil writes – the play is called Stormen, ‘The storm’. There are a lot of storms on the sea of dreams. The sky suddenly grows dark, and deceptive whirlwinds blow up, there are cold shivers and tornadoes, there is the Bermuda Triangle and the mighty chasm of the Mariana Trench. In its southern part is the world ‘s deepest marine environment, Challenger Deep, 11 kilometres. Our boats are small and fragile, and it ‘s a miracle they haven’t capsized more often.

It’s a miracle that in spite of it all we still so frequently reach our home harbour, that we arrive where we were bound for. Or somewhere else, but we do get there. We come ashore, we come ashore with what we set our minds on. More…

Me by myself

20 June 2013 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder their profession. Jyrki Kiiskinen casts light on the process of getting his books written: who is it that actually does the job?

People think I am a writer. But I am not. At literary events they sometimes come up and praise my most recent work, if they have happened to like it, not knowing that I have not written a single book. I try to ignore negative criticism, although it is not easy to put up with being blamed for other people’s work. I accept praise unhesitatingly, on those rare occasions when I receive it, although it feels strange.

It’s as if the person I’m talking to thinks I was someone else. He talks about the book’s style, its characters and its narrative voice, supposing that they are my invention.

At that moment I feel like a trickster. But I can’t be bothered to correct the misconception. I slurp my red wine happily and nod in false modesty, gazing deep into my interlocutor’s eyes. I keep chatting, to give him the impression that he’s met a living writer, myself – the person behind my words.


Weird and proud of it

5 September 2011 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series Finnish authors ponder their profession. Johanna Sinisalo, detests literary pigeonholes: in her opinion, the genre isn’t the point, the story is. Instead of having her books labelled ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’, she would like to coin a new term: Finnish weird

I’ve got a problem, and it’s a problem I share with my agent, my publisher, book retailers and librarians.

Nobody really knows which literary pigeonhole my works belong to. Almost without exception my stories include some element that is mystical, magical or otherwise at odds with our everyday reality, or they might be set in the future.

‘Doesn’t that make it fantasy?’ some might ask. ‘Or science fiction?’

Seasoned readers will of course appreciate that both ‘fantasy’ and ‘science fiction’ are very broad concepts that can encompass a whole variety of different texts. Even so, I still don’t want my works to be bunched into either of these categories. Why not? More…

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. More…

Horror on the first line

15 October 2010 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder their profession. In his radical youth, the poet and author Ilpo Tiihonen thought blind rage was what fuelled poetry. As he later found it’s a lot more complicated, he began to invent ways of loosening literary tension

When I was a little more than 20, when I thought I had completed the manuscript of my first volume of poems, everything was going to hell.

I wanted life to be political, exotic, inspired, but the Finnish way of life, with its instructions and its home loans crushed people into a stiff and monopositional way of being. One of submission. I protested. We made an underground magazine whose cover showed Nixon peeing on South America. We founded a propaganda theatre which raged against the colonels’ junta in Greece. And there was plenty to vilify about the Finnish bourgeoisie, too. I hated capitalism, TV advertisements and the high prices of bus tickets. And there was no hot water in my rented digs. The main thing was to protest. More…

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. More…

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? More…

In praise of melancholy

28 May 2009 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

In this series, Finnish authors ponder the difficulties of their profession. Sirpa Kähkönen, author of six novels, gives an account of going unseen – the painful initiation, triggered by the lukewarm reception of one of her books, of a more mature and profound phase in her life as a creative writer

I found myself in a temporary but intense period of creative crisis in the spring of 2006. The crisis was expressed outwardly in the classic manner – as an emptiness, a desertification. Suddenly I was unable to get to the place between dream and reality where an artist operates. Something was missing from my writing; the spark, the vibration, the lifeblood. More…

Trial and error?

Issue 4/2008 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

If you want to write, you need to do it every day, says the author Monika Fagerholm. Trial and error are necessary for her – and so is not being afraid of getting lost in the woods in the process, because only then can amazing things be found

Writers write and writers write every day. I remember seeing this in one of those inspirational guides on writing I enjoy reading – even if they don’t necessarily help you in pursuing your daily writing as much as you would hope. At the worst, they give you a kind of exhausting energy which just leaves you drained. And yes, turning to these kinds of manuals almost always involves an element of desperation; you don’t need advice when everything is going great. More…

Works in progress

Issue 3/2008 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

Olli Jalonen’s latest novel, 14 solmua Greenwichiin (’14 knots to Greenwich’, 2008), was 19 years in the making. He ponders the joys and tribulations of such a slow maturation

When you spend years or decades writing the same book, what is the drive, passion or compulsion that keeps the cogs turning through the quieter months? Or are the months when you don’t write silent at all? Isn’t it the case that the core of a text or a book is born out of a state of peaceful nothingness?

More often than not, the most important ideas, the strongest details and the sturdiest structures of the art of writing come into being somewhere other than at the computer keyboard. One of the greatest benefits and pleasures of a writer’s work is carrying that work around in mind and body. At these times the writing machinery is whirring, quietly, calmly, freely and unpressured. More…

Blocks and locks

Issue 2/2008 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

For the writer, not being able to write is just one of the profession’s occupational hazards, says the author Eeva Kilpi. She recalls a particularly debilitating attack of the affliction, and offers suggestions for escaping it

I had no idea I was currently suffering from writer’s block until I was asked to describe the condition.

Now I feel – as I sit at my oId, muscle-powered, Facit typewriter – that a horror of words is the first and normal reaction every time I have to begin a piece (let alone a book). Words dart into hiding like a frightened flock of birds that has barely settled to rest. (And now I hear successful, prolific colleagues rushing to explain how easy it is to use a computer to correct mistakes and move entire paragraphs even from one chapter to another, but I am paralysed by the very thought of a flickering screen, ready and waiting, and of the fateful key by pressing which one may destroy an entire immortal manuscript, as I have heard has happened to some people.) More…

The light itself

Issue 1/2008 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

Writer's block

What should you do when writer’s block strikes? Lie down and wait for inspiration to return, Petri Tamminen suggests

All autobiographical depictions of writer’s block are fundamentally flawed and false. If you happen to be suffering from writer’s block, these accounts make for painful reading.

The wittier, more carefully crafted and closely observed an account the writer gives of his affliction, the more gut-wrenching it feels. It’s like treading water and preparing to drown and having to listen to someone in dry clothes standing on the deck of a ship recalling a close call he had back in the seventies.

On the other hand, when you’re suffering from writer’s block everything annoys you. Good books seem overwhelmingly good, so much so that you realise you can never achieve that level of greatness. Similarly, bad books seem so overwhelmingly bad that you wonder why anyone bothers reading books and realise that it’s pointless trying to write one. More…

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. More…