PEN 2011: Remarks on Loneliness and Writing - by Kjersti Skomsvold

Editor's note: The following is Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold's opening remarks given at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature panel, "Loneliness and Community." You can read my write-up of the event here. You can read my review of Ms. Skomsvold's debut novel, The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, here. My sincere gratitude to Ms. Skomsvold for sharing this text with The Mantle. Enjoy!

by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold

My plan in life was to be a computer engineer, and for some years all the writing I did was in programming language. Fortunately life doesn’t always turn out the way we plan. And maybe all we want in life is a sorrow so big that it forces us to become ourselves before we die.

I got ill, and I had to move home to my parents and live in their basement. My father says that I have to stop calling it a basement. “We had the whole ground floor decorated for you,” he says. But it sounds sadder and more literary when I call it a basement; people want their writers to be miserable. I was very lonely those years, and scared. When I was lying there, looking up at the ceiling, I started to think about death. I wonder if the inevitable loneliness of being human is due to the fact that when we die, we die alone.

I didn’t have studies, friends, a boyfriend, or any of the activities I used to have to define myself. So, in desperation I decided to write a novel. I needed something very concrete to identify with, and I thought that if I became a writer, I would start to feel like a human being again. A novel has to be written by a human, I thought. I started to write about this old and lonely woman, Mathea, on Post-It notes that I put above my bed. I hadn’t  read a lot of books nor written anything previous to this, and I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it is to write something of quality, because then I probably never would have tried.

I had to rewrite my novel several times before I found my literary language, Mathea’s language. Thinking about how to become a human being out there in the world was connected to developing my language. As my writing got better, so did I. I could do more and more and, coincidentally, so could Mathea. She isolated herself because of her fear of other people– she is the image of solitude. But when the only person in her life, her husband Epsilon, dies, she is struck with a fear of dying herself, before anyone knows that she has lived. So to overcome her fear of death, she has to overcome her social anxiety.

After two years of writing all by myself in the basement, I attended creative writing schools for two years. I was surrounded by people who cared about words and sentences. So these years were perhaps more like being in a bubble than out in the real world. It was of great importance to me to have some very good writers and readers as teachers. There are still some of them that I picture when I’m writing now.

Then the book was published, and these past two years Mathea and I have been out in the world. We have come all the way to America; I’m still puzzled by how that could happen.

I write poorly when I’m stressed, so I find it harder to write these days. Ironically, the more stressed I am, the more stressful things I do. I have learned that loneliness is a necessary refuge. Or maybe “solitude” is the word to use, because I’m not sure if “lonely” is the right way of describing it. That’s the amazing thing about writing, you realize that just ”you” are enough.

There are days now when I wake up and instead of saying to myself: “Live. Seize the day!” – I say, as a survival technique: “Everyone I know and love has died.” Then I feel much better, and free enough to write some more.

Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing.