Where the Banal Meets the Existential

As I stepped into the balcony of Sprague Hall to hear memoirist Karl Ove Knausgård open this year’s Windham Campbell Prizes by posing and meandering through the prompt “Why I Write,” I paid him pale homage by chewing a stick of Orbit gum. My only exposure to Knausgård’s prose had come from a few essays he had published in the New York Times Magazine, the most memorable of which was, by far, his letter of recommendation for Juicy Fruit, a gum which, he explains, he cannot write without.

Although my allegiance may be to a different gum brand, I can’t deny my soft spot for him post-lecture. Of course, this may not surprise those susceptible to Knausgård’s brand of vulnerable, Norwegian masculinity.

(Just after I had spit my gum into a tissue, a friend dashed to a neighboring seat. “We went through the back entrance and Karl’s cigarette smoke blew into my face,” she said, her eyes alight. She swore she would never wash it again.)

From esquire.co.uk

His meditations on process, though, were what really wooed me. Knausgård practices introspection with an intensity that is both unapologetic and inertial. That is, he seemed most familiar with and comfortable during moments of self-interrogation — the breaks between his pedagogy. After 10 minutes of a coherent narrative, he would pivot, saying I wrote that yesterday. Now, after waking up under the hot Swedish sun, I find myself detesting every word of it.

I’m paraphrasing, but he managed to make his reiterated, reflexive deprecation avoid sounding like navel-gazing. Instead, it felt honest, exploratory. As if he wanted to know why he wrote as badly as he wanted to share it with us, and as badly as we wanted to hear it. The speech, then, was the trail of fjellbrød crumbs Knausgård dropped as he search for his true motivations, which we in turn picked up and ate along the way.

Some of the tastiest pieces were his analogies. There are two ways to write, he said. You can sit under the moon in your garden and wait for one hedgehog, then two, to peek out from the underbrush, or you can get a little drunk and stumble out of the screen door and accidentally kick one on your way to the guest house. We’re to assume, I think, that Knausgård has literally done both, but he much prefers the figurative former.

“Writing is about making things open, accessible,” he said. “Thoughts are your enemies. Be open and patient.”

Don’t take this to mean, though, that he would recommend staying this course all the time. He advocated for co-opting the act of writing to break out of your patterns and confront the banalities that everyday life inevitably hands you.

To demonstrate this, he told a story about a talk given by a man intent on the same question as Knausgård: why do we write? “I write,” the man said, “because I will die.” While he said this, Knausgård, sitting in the audience, couldn’t help but notice that the man’s sweater had tucked itself into the man’s pants. “This,” Knausgård said, “is literature”: where the banal meets the existential.

Per this definition, Knausgård’s speech brimmed with literary merit. He probed the deep desperation he felt early in his career — when his manuscripts were panned, again and again, by writers he respected — while mispronouncing words like “inconceivable” with the confidence of a man glued to his typed notes for 70 minutes. (In his defense, he wrote the speech in Norwegian before having it translated.)

This instance of life imitating art actually helped me feel better about my own case of imposter syndrome. Despite speaking most intently about defeat, Knausgård thrummed with hopeful energy. As he focused in on microscopic, personal details, I could feel him teaching me about my own specificities — fear that the hedgehogs won’t come out, worry that I’m not living up to my privileges. When my self-confidence threatens to go the way of my gum, I will do my best to remember how Knausgård struggled forward.

“And yet, I continued to write,” he explained, looking unsure but alive.