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.

The writer’s role has over the years become an important part of my identity. I have almost begun to believe in it myself, and I could probably no longer life differently. Dressed as a writer, I go around teaching writing and telling schoolchildren about the writer’s work and other deep questions, just as if I knew all about them.

Writers are expected to give oracular answers to everything. That is why I even answer polls.

Small performance fees are paid into my bank account. I have also been given grants for literary work. I used the money to buy my children shoes, bicycles and phones. I pay the rent on my apartment and buy food.

I also feed the writer, if there is food left over. He eats at my table. I would like to say he is a parasite. But that’s not quite true. I do not know how to write. And I do not like writing. It is the worst thing I know. That is why I do his laundry, shave his beard, soap his armpits. He has just one responsibility: he has to write every day.

Look at this man: he spends his days hunched over his desk, suffering from shoulder pain. He peers at the computer screen, his eyes red, at the mercy of his invisible tormentors.

When he stops writing for a moment, he takes a book in his hand and begins to read other people’s work, just as if he hadn’t already had enough of words. He can’t escape his role even in cafés: he’s always gathering material, examining other people, sacrificing his life to letters without ever completely living it. He dreams of an ordinary life: a job as a postman, a ski trip with the children, a happy relationship.

But that is why he exists. Not to live an ordinary life. But to dream of it. His work is to dream of the impossible.

He didn’t like writing either, to begin with. He set words down on paper so as to be able to live. He wrote in order to be himself and tried to work out what that might mean. He wanted to get a picture of how far shared beliefs have diverged from reality. He wrote into explore the possibilities of freedom. He wrote to escape the trap.

Over the past four years he has been working on my latest novel, Jonglööri (‘The juggler’*). I have to admit that our collaboration was a challenge. He dreamed he was a circus star who could control fire. He dreamed of love, but did not suspect that it brings death with it.

As he wrote he returned to the Helsinki of the late 1970s in order to understand how his main character became who he was and how punk freed minds. He imagined how a friend’s death would have changed life. The writer was forced to leave no stone of the story unturned.

Sometimes he rebelled and refused to write. Then I had to negotiate with him patiently, making his working conditions clear. He whined that he was suffering from writer’s block.

‘Well then,’ I answered, ‘take a couple of days off. Get some rest.’ He returned to his work room, repentant, and wrote, just as I wished. I have my methods of getting him in line.

Once when we had had a particularly difficult period, I let him go and play tennis. From experience, I knew he would write a poem about it later. I sold it to a tennis magazine, and they took my photo, too.

[*) to be published in August 2013]

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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