Tag Archives: writing practice

Writing in the foothills

Karen Blixen wrote about her African farm. Photo: Carl van  Vechten. 1959. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blixen3b41298u.jpg

Karen Blixen wrote about her African farm. Photo: Carl van Vechten. 1959. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blixen3b41298u.jpg

Karen Blixen’s Den Afrikanske Farm (Out of Africa, 1937) is probably the most famous, internationally acclaimed Danish novel. Though I do not kid myself to have the great skill of Blixen, I like the parallel of her story with mine: A Danish woman immigrating to a foreign country to set up her livelihood and who starts to write late in life. I hope of course that similarities end there – I do not have a philandering husband, there is no Denys Finch-Hatton and though we may have had thoughts of living sustainably off the land at one point, we have abandoned this project and I have stuck to my secure employment.

It was with some amusement that I first heard of Erling Jepsen’s Den Sønderjyske Farm (The South-Jutland Farm). Inspired by Blixen’s masterpiece, Jepsen wrote his third novel about Allan and his childhood community in Gram. Nearly appropriating Blixen’s work, this novel starts by describing the landscape of Gram and how the main character, Allan, had a rabbit farm at the foothills of Gram Bakke.

Unlike Africa, Denmark is a terribly flat place. The highest places reach only some 170m  into the sky. Gram Bakke is no Ngong mountain and the cultural difference between the west-southern Jutes and the east-southern Jutes is not really the same as the cultural differences Blixen encountered in Kenya between colonisers and the colonised. A black woman, Mkali, does feature in the novel, but she is the daughter of an African-American soldier and a German woman. Perhaps her untimely end in an unsympathetic community draws references to the impact of the colonisers in Kenya on the first nations people in Blixen’s novel.

Blixen's inspiration for a tale about a farm probably ends there - the farm becomes a place where unreliable adults are not welcome

Blixen’s inspiration for a tale about a farm probably ends there – the farm becomes a place where unreliable adults are not welcome

The humour of this author is warm, understated and sharp, as we learn about Allan’s attempts to impress and be acknowledged by his father, the failed milkman who got a bit too close to his daughter. The son suffers terribly for the father’s sins and childhood in Gram is a gruesome affair. In spite of the odds against him, Allan appears to grow up to live in Copenhagen and become a succesful writer who could not imagine writing without Coffee Punch – a drink from his homelands, made by pouring enough strong coffee into a cup that you can no longer see the bottom and then adding akvavit or ‘snaps’ until you can see the bottom again. Stir in sugar to taste, and the coffee will ensure you stay alert, while the snaps will release your creative juices.

I am not sure it is advice I will take in my pursuit of writing, though when I sit empty before the computer, I could do with a bit of creative release.

Jepsen’s first novel, Ingen Grund til Overdramatisering (No reason for too much drama, 1999), is similarly about a budding writer, whose main concern seems to be how to find a way to live off the public purse while figuring out his writing practice and life in general. This also seems like poor advice to the budding writer and probably explains a thing or two about what has gone wrong with the Danish welfare model.

I have wondered before how penniless Hemingway and the rest of the artist community in Paris in the 1920s could afford living how they did in Paris. My husband points out that in the past most artists and writers have either been from well-to-do families – such as Karen Blixen – or if from an impoverished background had a patron or two to support them – such as Hans Christian Andersen.

In Denmark, Julius Bomholt’s introduction of arms-length art support in 1964 legitimised the State’s support of arts and culture and a desire to support merit rather than wealth (in Australia Whitlam achieved the same in 1974). The pursuit of artistic expression became the province of all talented people. But of course you usually have to show merit first to be supported. Jepsen’s budding writer had shown none of that, other than being mistaken for a more or less successful screen writer.

How does one support oneself to get the time and the space to write? Should society support people who decide to abandon their education or paying job to follow their dreams to create? If so, who should decide which people are deserving of the support and how?

Learning from the masters

Pussy Galore is one of the cafes in my neighbourhood, right on Sankt Hans Torv. It will be lovely sitting outside during long summer nights. At the moment the outdoor settings are mainly used for smokers pushed outside by smoking laws. But as for staying here all day writing - I don't think I can afford it! Photo: Lone 2015.

Pussy Galore is one of the cafes in my neighbourhood, right on Sankt Hans Torv. It will be lovely sitting outside during long summer nights. At the moment the outdoor settings are mainly used for smokers pushed outside by smoking laws. But as for staying here all day writing – I don’t think I can afford it! Photo: Lone 2015.

As I settle into my reverse expat experience of my home country here in Copenhagen, I picked up Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (1964), written about his time as a young, poor writer in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and son.

I have never read a word of Hemingway before and my knowledge of him was quite vague and second hand. But he kept cropping up as someone to read for an example of simple language and so I plunged in. I was not disappointed.

It is an easy read, though sometimes the narrative is fractured, as memoirs can be. From time to time the short book reads like elaborate name dropping. Gertrude Stein here, James Joyce there, a bit of Picasso and a dim view of Scott Fitzgerald, the person, and his mad wife Zelda. He names streets, cafés and hotels and I want to go to Paris to experience the artist community he is part of. This was a time, Hemingway claims, when there was no official uniform for the artist uniform and one could wear what one pleased, when sitting in cafés all day long, bent over a notebook with a pen, nursing a café creme while the waiters swept and cleaned up.

In this novel the gems about establishing a writing practice may be mere wall paper to most readers. But these were the bits that I found most interesting. Hemingway realises that his obsession with winning at the races interferes with his writing practice because to earn a living that way one must know much more about horses and acquiring that knowledge takes time away from creating good writing from which to earn a living. Perhaps my equivalent is the temptation to find a ‘real job’ to supplement our savings (and to be easily able to explain what I do with my days), but this too would take time away from writing. I repeat to myself: I am a writer.

Hemingway’s clearest writing advice is to work until something has been written and stop only when you know what is going to happen next. If stuck, he would remember:
Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. (p12)

By truest sentence he meant a sentence that he knew or had seen or heard someone say – a simple, declaratory sentence. He called elaborate writing scrollwork or ornament that could be discarded.

Where do the swans go when it gets so cold the lake freezes? Photo: Lone 2015.

Where do the swans go when it gets so cold the lake freezes? Photo: Lone 2015.

At some point Hemingway’s writing practice involved leaving the flat to go to the local café to write, hoping that he would not meet anyone to disturb his flow. His wife would also go out and leave their young son in his crib with the cat, F Pussy. While this would have social workers well concerned in this century, it seemed accepted practice then. Until the flat got too cold for the baby to stay in during winter. Then the family went skiing in the Alps.

Hemingway also advises to stop working and stop thinking about the work between working, so as to let the subconscious work on it. He would then be able to listen to the conversation of other people and to notice things. Using his writerly sense.

For someone so poor, Hemingway consumed an inordinate amount of coffee, meals and wine in the cafés of Paris. But maybe those cafés were affordable and had a different business model to cafés in Copenhagen nearly 100 years later. Daily coffee and lunching in the plentiful cafés in my local neighbourhood would soon deplete our savings. But also, Copenhagen coffee is not that good: I have come to realise how spoilt for good coffee we are in Brisbane. Rather than the smooth drop with well frothed milk and a touch of real chocolate sprinkles that I know from my favourite Brisbane coffee joint, John Mills Himself, a Copenhagen cappuccino is a crass affair with none of the sweetness. And expensive too – about twice the price I pay in Brisbane.

My routine involves walking after we get out of bed. This morning the sun was out. Photo: Lone 2015.

My routine involves walking after we get out of bed. This morning the sun was out. Photo: Lone 2015.

In my attempts to write, I have tried to establish a writing practice. Sometimes, I leave the flat to write, not because the flat is cold, but because I need to get out. I might sit in the foyer of the Black Diamond, the Royal Library building on the canal front, where I listen to the conversations of students on progress of their thesis, the hearing of their disputation or their new love. If there are other writers and artists around, they are not wearing a recognisable artist uniform.

I also leave the work to do other stuff – my husband and I visit galleries and museums and we walk the streets of Copenhagen, noticing architecture, nature, people and graffiti. With my writerly sense.

But I need more discipline to write enough every day. Or I feel as useless as Hemingway did on an escapade with Scott Fitzgerald – a day wasted not writing.