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.

Writing, making something your own out of nothing, creating ‘a world with a vision’ – to my mind the best way to characterise a piece of art – simply cannot be done without putting yourself and all you have into the game. Doubting your work means doubting yourself. Or just plain boredom, ennui… wanna change my clothes my hair my face, as Bruce Springsteen puts it in his song ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

Obviously, there are times one would seriously consider becoming a neat little enterprise: perfectly organised, tuned to deadline. So I have not only read Mrs Diane Doubtfire on The Craft of Novel Writing or paid for the CD The New Novelist I on Amazon, but also hit the bottom with Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and a book called Johdan itseäni, ‘Leading myself’. The title says it all.

However, you do pick up things on the way. Writers write and writers write every day. When I began writing novels in the early 1990s – after two collections of fragmented prose – I decided to start from scratch and make it simple. No abstract ideas, no questions to answer about what I was going to do to literature. Just me and the empty screen.

This did not mean ‘anti-intellectual’ – but writing had become boring, since I knew what I was going to say before having written a single sentence. And of course there’s the humble notion that literature is about life and experience, not about literature; it’s easy to hide behind ideas, i.e. from yourself. There is much one doesn’t know that one knows. Writing is a lot about that, going into the wilderness.

If we look at the writing process as consisting of three C:s  – Craft, Creativity and Chaos – each one of them is in its way indispensable, but I would definitely go for chaos, for in chaos lies vision.

Yes, writers need crafting: good working habits, not being lazy, tapping away their daily quotas of pages. And creativity is an overused word, especially in today’s Finland, where art has been defined as sisällöntuotanto, ‘content production’ – but plans, structures, ideas are important (especially if you want to write a novel).

The essence of it all, however, does not reside in that: this is something we all know, if we read books, and I read for the same reasons as I write. In all books that make an impact on you there is some kind of a burning hole, something incomplete and revealing, about shame, losses – those kinds of things . Stammering, a terrible sense of being in the wrong … a factor X. A point where a story stops being just another story and opens up to the very personal for the reader, in unexpected ways.

This is one crucial part of vision which in its essence is untranslatable. You cannot – and while writing, shall not – put it down ‘in other words’, try to explain as a rational concept: instead, you move with it, as if it were a blueprint in your mind – a sense, a feeling.

I set up two rules for my writing: I want to change with what I do, and I want to write every day. I would like my writing to be not so much about finding a voice or a way of writing, but to move with my ‘I’’, not from, with all I have: thoughts, ideas, emotions, all kinds of ‘material’ (scenes, ‘burning’ images) picked up on the way. And I want to be open to everything that happens on the way; if this upsets the structure, then let it do so – one mustn’t immediately throw over board things that don’t seem to fit in, but explore them through writing instead. Obviously, in this process, you don’t count drafts or pages, and a lot of it is trial and error. Going into the woods and not finding your way… losing confidence since you never know whether what you are writing will be ‘worth’ anything.

But still, in moments of strength and daring, I would not change this way of being/writing for anything – sometimes you do find amazing things. Perhaps the only kind of professionalism I believe in is not so much about talent or skills, but about slowly developing, through this ongoing daily writing, writers write and writers write every day – enough skin on your nose to keep at it, to write yourself through the methods that work for you.

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