A year ago today, I arrived at Arteles in the Finnish forest for a month of focussed writing.
Designed primarily for visual artists, the surfaces of Arteles are galleries. Gifts from previous residents mark walls and furniture, hang in unexpected places. During winter, treasures wait beneath the layers of snow for summer residents to discover them. And on the day of their departure, each resident signs their name on the foyer wall: a record to prove it wasn’t a dream.
For me, arriving at Arteles was like exhaling after holding my breath for five months. It provided exactly what I needed at the time: solitude, stillness and a huge desk. Before I left, I wanted to give it a token of thanks, something more than just a name in permanent marker. So I wrote a tiny love letter to Arteles, so small it could only hold one sentence. I hid it in a high crack in the wooden wall of my room, the wall which marked the boundary between my desk and the leafless birch forest.
Eleven months later, I received an email from the artist then occupying my room. Part of it said:
Thank you for your secret message, which reminded me that there is perhaps a deeper connection between those of us drawn to the Finnish winter.
I love that someone found my note and took the time to write to me. But what’s even more important is this idea of connection, not to the Finnish winter – although that is a curious phenomenon – but to another person I’ll never meet.
What resonated with this artist was that one hidden sentence about my experience in that room reflected her own. It’s easy to forget how similar our experiences are, especially when they’re difficult to articulate. But this is the power of the work we create.
For me, this artist’s email was a perfectly timed reminder of the importance of sending work – regardless of its scale – out into the world. We can never anticipate the significance it will have for someone else, or how it might influence them. And when, on rare occasions, someone contacts us to let us know, we can never anticipate how that gratitude will fan our own inspiration.
I spent last month working on a novel in Haukijärvi, Finland, at a creative centre called Arteles. Haukijärvi is a rural area. Behind Arteles is a forest of birch and pine. In front of it is a field leading to a frozen lake. Tampere – the closest city – is a 46 kilometre drive. There’s no bus stop, train station or shop of any kind within walking distance, and in March the roads are still too icy for cycling. In short, I spent the past month in Writers’ Paradise: a place of isolation.
When I arrived on the first day of March, the quietness of Haukijärvi greeted me. Although winter had mellowed, the snow was still thick. There was no birdsong or insect-hum. Even the air seemed to have stilled: the leaves didn’t rustle; the lake’s surface was set in shallow ripples. Only the falling snow betrayed the air’s secret movements. I have never before experienced such a motionless landscape. It was an incredible relief after months in Berlin.
In her keynote address at Australia’s inaugural National Writers’ Congress, Anna Funder noted that writers need time and space. Arteles provided me with an abundance of both. Before my arrival, I had visions of long hours at the desk, engaged in focused writing. In reality, this didn’t happen because it didn’t need to. I could read for an hour over breakfast. I could walk along the dirt roads, where pedestrians outnumbered vehicles. I could socialise with my fellow residents. And I still had time to write, and to write well, without the pressure of squeezing my creative work into small spaces in my diary.
A writer never needs much physical space. I like to spread out: I keep multiple and illogically ordered notebooks. I’m regularly overrun by index cards covered in corrections and ideas. But in truth, I can work in a space just large enough to hold my laptop. What I don’t always have though is headspace. Before my residency, I’d spent four months in Berlin wrestling with the challenge of moving to a foreign city on a whim. At Arteles, I no longer had to worry about bureaucracy, or proactively making new friends, or navigating through an unfamiliar environment. Being removed from my new life and its difficulties allowed me to reconnect with my characters and their own circumstances.
One advantage of a month-long residency in a remote region is that you don’t have to justify thinking time. There were days when I spent only a few hours behind the keyboard. But as I walked through the forest and across the fields, my characters walked beside me. I could unravel their natures and motivations. I could identify and solve narrative problems. The creative benefits of walking are well documented. For me, walking alone – really alone where I don’t even pass another walker – amplifies these benefits. I love Berlin for its endless parks and pathways, but to be outside and so alone is a luxury that I’ll miss enormously.
A longer residency also gave me the space to think about other projects. In ‘normal life’, I feel pressured to focus on my biggest project, which is currently a YA novel set in Germany in 1932. Research for this novel has been a major project in itself, and one which self-propagates. But at Arteles, I allowed myself to work on pieces not intended for publication. Nearly every day, I spent ten minutes writing non-stop about anything and nothing. I had two rules for this exercise: I wasn’t allowed to write about myself, and I had to write non-stop. Some days, my writing was boring, pedestrian drivel. Other days, something interesting arose. Scenes for the next novel I’m planning began to appear. New characters introduced themselves. I wasn’t surprised when birch forests, lakes and snow worked their way onto the page.
I also had the time to plan some other projects – the fun, community ones that have been circling my mind for a while, and that I might have time to pursue in my new life. Thinking about these smaller projects felt overly indulgent with so much other work to do. But if I’d already reached my writing goal for the day, I allowed myself to put my manuscript aside. I enjoyed doing this: the novel explores some difficult themes and sitting with them for too long is depressing. Stepping away without guilt or stress generated more energy for the next day.
Being marooned in a Finnish forest with eight other creative folk could be disastrous if personalities clashed, but I found myself in wonderful company. I’m very good at staying in my writer’s cave, particularly when I have a target to reach by a set date. But when I did emerge, I had the opportunity to spend time with an intelligent and insightful group of individuals, who all look at the world in a different way to me. And this is what I love – the chance to learn about the world someone else sees.
Many of the other residents worked in text-based art forms, but were primarily performance and visual artists, working with paint, ink, graphite, found objects, film, movement, chain mail and puzzles. Each conversation broadened my understanding of other art forms and practices. And of course, we had lots of fun hanging out, taking mini-road trips and assisting with puzzle-making under the direction of the Puzzle Master. One night we stood together while wishes were granted: the Aurora Borealis rippled green over our heads. We may never see each other again, but we’ll always be attached through that memory.
Each of us received a blessing on our final Sunday together: a page we’d contributed to a resident’s art-book, accompanied by text of her own creation that spoke to our work. The text given to me explored the ability not only to make choices, but to consciously break them. It’s a timely reminder as I re-enter life in Berlin, where the future feels more ambiguous than ever before. I tell myself that the experience is good for me, that it feeds my creative work. But I’m grateful for this month of respite in the Finnish forest, with the birch trees and the silence and the snow. You can write a novel anywhere, but it’s rare to have the time and space to write on your own terms.
Access the Arteles Residency artists' catalogue here.