Text: Solveig Hansen, 2016 / Photo: Mag Pole/Unsplash
“It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania, that strange city which no one leaves before it has set its marks upon him.”
This is the famous opening line in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), a psychological novel that describes the painful birth of a writer. The narrator in the novel is an unnamed man wandering the streets of Kristiania (former name of Oslo), a struggling writer trying to keep his dignity and sanity – and his precious pencil stubs. His hunger is both physical and mental, and at one point he almost eats his pencil. Occasionally, he earns a little money by selling an article to a newspaper. In the book, he relates his experiences from his walks and from his encounters with people.
I think any aspiring writer can relate to the drive inside that anonymous writer, but for him there was no compromise and he wouldn’t take other jobs. He was craving for writing – and recognition, I guess.
To describe “the whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow” should be the objective of modern literature, according to Hamsun, and with Hunger he showed how. A young man’s drive to become a writer became a novel about the drive to become a writer, and we look into his mind and know exactly how he feels.
We, the readers, expect a lot from writers. They should entertain us, inform and explain, move us, solve complex criminal mysteries, and write killer endings that make us nod in agreement and say, “That’s exactly how it had to end.” Or, “Whaaat?”
As much as I love to read, I’m even more curious as to how stories are conceived. What finally triggers the moment of genesis, the exact point where creator meets creation and there is light. How much struggle it takes to find “the right composition of words that create joyous magic, make you feel as if you are in that smoky blues joint or experiencing the morning atmosphere as the city wakes up and gets ready for a new day,” to quote myself.
I know this: Writing is damn hard work. Hamsun’s hungry protagonist above almost goes mad, and ends up signing on a ship and leaving the city. Any writer would tell you that the only way to write is to sit down and write rather than wait for inspiration to strike. Just write.
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work,” Stephen King writes in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
I would have liked to spend 24 hours out in the streets of a big city, just to observe it as it wakes to life, gets busy and fills up with people and cars, slows down, goes to sleep and wakes up again. Then I would grab a cup of coffee and a danish, go home and write about it all. Maybe not a “whisper of the blood and the pleading of the bone marrow” type of piece, but still. It could be the genesis of an author. Or not. I might not be hungry enough.