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.

Perhaps I write because I can’t speak. I feel myself to be too slow-witted, awkward-worded and uncertain. Dull. Writing gives me the time to seek the right expressions at the right time,

                                                           sharp and incisive

or else drown the world in a flood of words. But sometimes a wall grows between me and my words and I am left pounding at its rough surface, banging my head against it without even hitting the spot that says STRESS RELIEF. BANG YOUR HEAD AGAINST THIS. Sometimes all my words go wrong, swarming here and there, making stupid, meaningless sentences. Behind the eyes that peer at the screen yawns emptiness.

When I was writing my collection of stories Kirahviäiti ja muita hölmöjä aikuisia [‘The giraffe mum and other silly adults’], I set a maximum limit of 1,800 characters per story. I stared at Avaruusseilaajat [‘Space sailors’] for three whole days – there were two characters too many. But how to get rid of them, since the story had been reduced to perfection, like a bone gnawed smooth by water? The story tells of Tomi and Juri, who wander through space looking for aliens. The cold emptiness of infinity begins to frighten Juri, so Tomi sends him back to Earth and sets off towards the buzzing swarm of aliens. For two days I listened to David Bowie’s Space Oddity; on the third I moved on to Ashes to Ashes. On the fourth I understood that the concept of minimalist stories would not stand or fall by two characters. I didn’t want to destroy language through obsession.

Kirahviäiti appeared simultaneously and almost identically in two languages. Slovakian is my mother tongue, I was born in it and grew up in it. When, after a long pause, I returned to writing, Finnish became my literary language. Later I also returned to Slovakian. The languages mix in my speech, but not in my writing; all the same, it sometimes seems as if, instead of two, I can only use one half.

In writing my first novel, 27 eli kuolema tekee taiteilijan [‘27 or death makes the artist’] some portions of the text appeared in my mind crystal clear – in Slovakian. They were untranslatable, for the image always appeared malformed and distorted. In the end I had to accept as my practical literary language the level of Finnish that was then mine. It was not (and is still not) perfect: I couldn’t recognise the nuances of different synonyms, my sentence structure was simpler and my language rougher, my accuracy swayed. On the other hand, since I was already lost in a foreign language, I dared to behave freely, reckless of boundaries and pitfalls. I made half-conscious, half-accidental observations and hits, but also gave birth to a whole herd of misaimed freaks. I remember my first Finnish literary text, the short story Se oikea, aito maahanmuuttajamies (‘The proper, genuine immigrant man’), and the tragicomic tikkatakki in it – the podded jacket (tikkitakki = padded jacket, tikka = woodpecker, or dart). For a long time I did not understand what was so terribly funny about it.

I can’t write three-hundred-page monoliths – I build my texts from fragments and enjoy it, like doing a jigsaw puzzle. There were two plot lines in my first novel; in one of them three narrators took turns. I printed a list of paragraphs, marking each narrator with a different colour and looked at it until all my eyes could see was different colour surfaces. Their rhythmic rotation pleased me, and I set out to dismantle the broad single-colouredness. I like symmetry and I like breaking it. Writing is to me a sculpture which gradually takes shape from a damp lump of clay. An artist taught me that you cannot begin to perfect an eye if you haven’t at least sketched the whole. A director taught me that Picasso had first learned to draw. A philosopher taught me that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end. Rules are made to be broken.

I composed Kirahviäiti carefully, like a music album. You can read the individual stories at random, but every one of them stands in precisely the place that belongs to it. My next project, which seems like endless toil, is still a clod, which keeps spreading rather than finally taking shape. Before it, I tread the ground helplessly holding a little chisel, thinking what part I should strike.

Then I make some coffee, hoover the hall and all the books, sit down and count the breadcrumbs on the computer keyboard, bite my thumb, make some tea. I have been pregnant with it longer than an elephant: it must be born soon. But some children demand more, and I am a master of procrastination.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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