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.

Writing in your head, waking up in the early hours to ideas and contemplating solutions to structural problems, the unhindered flow of important images while out jogging or in the swimming pool – this is the delicate, sweet little sister of the writing process. Part of the work is completed with the ease of the little sister’s freedom, the rest at the computer or typewriter.

The sedentary part of the writing process is the heavier older brother. You can become so tired of it that high fences rise up in front of them, but I don’t believe one can ever tire of the little sister, of the freedom to think and brainstorm.

Neither of these aspects can replace the other: Good text won’t come about by sitting down and dragging it out of yourself, but, on the other hand, nothing resembling a concrete piece of work can be born out of the flow of ideas and the joy of thinking alone. That said, these siblings of writing are so close to one another that it is impossible to tell their histories apart in the finished product.

I have written several books that have taken me over ten years to complete. The longest process of this kind lasted 24 years. My novel 14 solmua Greenwichiin (’14 knots to Greenwich’), to be published this autumn, took me 19 years to write. Empty time, works completed in the interim and changes that come with day­-to-day life have happened along the way. The baggage that always accompanies me, however, consists of different works in progress, invisible cities that sometimes only exist as thoughts or as longer texts that develop paragraph by paragraph.

Works to be developed in the future travel with me and are strangely well defined in the filing cabinet inside my head. They mature, almost by themselves, in the cradle of synopses, sometimes by accident, the children of freedom and silence.

Of course, they don’t come into being and mature by themselves or by accident, but as such an inseparable part of me that at times they seem to be more like elements of the very process ofliving than simply chunks of text.

Over a period of several decades, writers change and the world around them changes so much that working slowly necessarily produces something very different from a work written from start to finish in six months. At least the more superficial stuff will often vanish because you cannot be generally bothered to hold on to such ephemeral things for long.

Every text that grows slowly over time contains echoes and shadows of its period of growth. This doesn’t guarantee quality, and it isn’t a value in its own right; it’s merely a fact. In fact, these echoes and shadows would pervade the text in any case, as writers carry not only their own lives with them but also the lives of the previous generation as well.

But what is it that sustains such a prolonged writing process? What exactly is the joy in quietly turning individual thoughts around in your head or in thinking up and evaluating new ideas, a joy so strong that it can see you through periods of not writing?

Aside from the endless treadmill of acquisitions and consumerism, we live in a world of symbols and intentions. Even during a slow, steady writing process the writer remains a seeker at all times. Throughout a work’s journey, the writer filters meanings from the fog of symbols and connects things to one another in new ways. Thus, the writer is both a seeker of meaning and a giver of meaning.

Writing a single work lasts as long as it takes to weigh its associated meanings. It might be 20 years, but who says the process of writing doesn’t continue long after the book is bound and on the shelf?

Translated by David Hackston

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