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.)

I have come to the conclusion that I must seek encouragement from my own past. When one has lived as long as I have, and, since the age of 31, attempted to create order in one’s life experiences by turning one’s chaotic feelings into literary forms, one has already passed through many phases and developed methods of enticing frightened expressions to make their home in one’s brain and on paper.

The first method is to lounge quietly on one’s bed with one’s eyes shut, one’s right hand raised to one’s forehead, one’s left on one’s chest, resting on one’s breastbone to check that one is still breathing and alive. One’s left leg is bent and one’s right thrown freely over it, to encourage an illusion of relaxation. In springtime one hears the song of returning migrant birds through the window; in autumn, from the meadow, the voices of children who have just started school. In summer, at the cottage in the forest, one can hear wasps gnawing construction material for their nests from the grey windowsills.

As one lounges, the desire is born to criticise. Why select ‘writer’s block’ as a subject of interest, since writers should be evaluated for their best works, just as people in general should be judged according to what is best in them? But one can take a different approach, so let it be. I allow myself to remember a terrible period when I feared that words had left me forever and that for that reason I no longer had any human dignity.

It is wrong, I must say in the same breath. One’s human dignity does not go anywhere even if one does not write a single syllable; one’s human dignity is lost for quite different reasons, if it exists in the first place, especially if it is extended to embrace all living things.

That word-loss confronted me in 1975, after an intensive four-year period of writing. I had then, in the early 1970s, published two collections of short stories, two novels and a collection of poetry, and I was suddenly bereft of words, without even properly realising it. My notes, my ‘post-it notes’ (method number two) and my diaries from that period are full of cries for help:

‘I am hopelessly depressed. I am in pain. Awful feeling, I can’t write. I don’t have the energy to live. Or be. I am not certain of anything. If only I could get some kind of grip on the edge of a narrative and go on. I feel I’m dying -and it’s true.’

Just in case I should fall victim to such feelings again, I, have noted things that helped. One must read, read, read. One must go on forest walks. One must write down even one’s merest whims, to help open the blocked channels. One must make lists and write postcards. In extreme circumstances one can write on bus tickets and shop receipts. One must take pictures and write their subjects on the back.

And so on.

A moment ago I found, in my dressing-gown pocket, a paper handkerchief on which I can make out the words:

An intoxicated woodpecker drums on a lamp-stand in the early hours. Words are behind locks and the key is lost. No one can seek out another uncritically except in poetry and love. When this happens the doors have opened by themselves.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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