Where nothing is but everything is becoming


Karl Ove Knausgård, recently shortlisted for Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Dublin Literary Award, on writing and editing.

Another notion about writing, almost as widespread as the one about the solitary writer, is that writing has something to do with practising a craft. I do not recognize myself here and, once more, feel it is the other way round. To write means that you must break down what you know and have learnt, an unthinkable approach for a craftsman such as a joiner, who cannot start afresh again and again. This is not to say that a joiner is not creative or cannot find new solutions to old problems. I assume that a joiner works at his (or her) best when not deep in thought but just preoccupied with working, just as a professional driver drives well when his long-acquired knowledge, his driver’s craft, is not constantly on his mind but just reflected in what he is doing. The same is true of musicians: their technical skill or craft is something they must know so well they are unaware of knowing it because only when they have reached that level will the music flow, become art. A footballer is a poor player if he has to think about how to ground a ball or ask himself whether it’s best to pass to the left or the right of the opposition, or maybe try to shoot. What musicians, joiners, drivers and football players have in common is that they have practised until the techniques are part of their bodies, something they are unaware of, reflexes that function on their own. One can write in a state that is devoid of all self-awareness and is desirable: I once watched an interview with the British writer Ian McEwan and heard him say that writing could make him forget about himself and that absent mood, which came to him only rarely, felt like the high point of writing. But, as distinct from these other activities, there is really nothing about writing that can be practised, no techniques to repeat endlessly until they stick – for what should they be? Try again and again to write a dramatic twist? Practise certain ways of describing a face or a personality? No, you don’t get better by training, it cannot be just a matter of repetition but only of reaching the real thing, the thing in itself, because to write is to enter into real things in themselves, something you do only once, in just that way, and cannot run through again, because then you are no longer close to things as they are but just to the repetition. Instead, what defines writing more than anything else is not practice, but failure. Failing, not making it, failing, not getting it right, failing, failing, failing – but not in order to get to the real thing through some future attempt, which would be half-hearted and being half-hearted is the opposite of writing well, no, failure must be the outcome of you risking everything, in utter seriousness, trying your best. Fumbling as you receive the ball at football practice is annoying but does not hurt. A literary failure is hurtful and if you do not feel the pain, it is not failure but only a practice run-though that will get you nowhere. In other words, to write, you must deceive yourself, you must make yourself believe that this time I am on to something regardless of how miserable and useless it might be. The process is uncertain, fluid throughout and, even if the heightened state, selfless and glowing, should take over, it need not mean that what you have written has any value, any sort of quality – after all, most of those who are unaware of the self are children.