Bjørn Larssen: How I Became A Writer (Guest Blog)

Bjørn Larssen

Bjørn Larssen, how I became a writerThis is the story of how I became a writer. My first graphic novel was self-published when I was six years old. It was a limited edition of one, painstakingly handcrafted using crayons, sticky tape, staples, and paper ripped from a notebook. I must admit I don’t remember very well what it was about, other than that it told adventures of a robot. (Robots are easy to draw when you’re six.) I was so excited by my newfound status of a published author that two hours later I was holding a sequel in my hands. There’s nothing better than being an author published twice in one afternoon! Other kids ran around screaming, beating each other up with toys, throwing toy cars, and whatever it was that kids did before smartphones were invented.

I sat at a table by myself, quiet, busy with my graphic novels, earning thankful glances from the tutor for being quiet…and slowly realizing nobody cared about my art. I was a very cynical – or realistic – 6-year-old.

Unfortunately, those graphic novels, which are now forever lost, would remain the last thing I’d finish before turning 41.

How I Became a Writer

Soon afterwards, I discovered libraries, and decided to allocate my time to research (as in obsessively devouring all the books). Nobody cared about my age, which meant I ended up reading extremely odd things for a kid that wasn’t even ten years old. I couldn’t understand why someone would stop writing about the exciting bits, like sentient robot clowns taking over the universe, to blather about people being in bed and not even sleeping.

Reading allowed me to escape my grim reality. Being raised in a Communist country was hardcore enough without being the only boy in class who wore glasses, was fat, and couldn’t play football. In the school hierarchy I was on the bottom, and it was fair game to bully me any time someone felt like doing so. But when I returned home I was an adventurer, discoverer, sailor, knight, king, sometimes an ice queen or a witch. Soon I started becoming a discerning critic, huffing “pffft, I could write a better book in my sleep”. Needless to say, I didn’t write a better book in my sleep, but somewhere in my thirties I decided to try doing it whilst awake.

There were a few problems involved. First of them was my attention span, or rather lack thereof. Second – I was already making music, working full-time as a graphic designer, and once a burnout put an end to my design career, I became a blacksmith apprentice. After eight hours at the forge, I didn’t feel like writing. Instead, I’d eat a massive dinner, crack open a beer and read someone else’s book, every now and then rolling my eyes and muttering a variation on “I could write a better book any time”.

At that time, I really fancied the idea of myself being a writer, swimming in money, having to hide from groupies and wear sunglasses in public when trying to decide on the color of my next Ferrari. (The 6-year-old me was more realistic regarding the upcoming fame and fortune.) I just didn’t feel like making the necessary effort. I was obviously a genius, and why would a genius have to work so hard?

I’ve been blogging since about 2001 and gathered quite a following. I’d change blogs every now and then, and the readers would move on with me. A few times I mentioned casually I was writing a book and was met with nothing but excitement and encouragement…until at one point it became clear that I was now the boy who cried “book”. Just talking about it wasn’t enough anymore to impress my blog readers. So, with a deep sigh and a glass of whiskey I sat down with my laptop and tried. I had a few ideas, I knew I was a great writer because I had a blog, all I needed to do was type for a few days, then find a publisher and prepare to become a household name.

Unfortunately, my own ideas couldn’t even keep me interested. I’d start, greatly excited, pantsing rather than plotting (not that I knew those words even existed), get a bit over it around page 40, decide it was way too much work around page 100, then drop the idea once I figured out how the book would end. At least now I could boast about the fact that I have almost written a book, which was almost the same thing as being a published author and almost as impressive as well.

Bjørn LarssenThe reason I progressed, for the first time in my life, past a first draft was a catastrophe that I thought would have been the end of everything. I sustained two spine injuries out of sheer stupidity. Not even at the forge, which at least would have sounded manly and interesting. Five people, including me, lifted up a very heavy piece of IKEA furniture. One of them dropped his corner, the entire weight pulled me down and I felt pleasant warmth in my lower back. I had two back injuries I acquired at the gym before, so I thought – meh, a week without forging.

The week turned into a month, then months, then years. I visited so many doctors, physiotherapists, orthopedists, etc. that I lost count. The pain was so incredible that maximum doses of opiates barely took the edge off. I could only sit in one very precise position, with pillows of the right shape and size placed at the right angles. This position allowed me to use a laptop. I couldn’t make music, I couldn’t forge, I couldn’t design. But I could type. On December 26, 2016, when I fell in the shower and couldn’t stand up, I decided my life was over. On January 1, 2017, I positioned myself on my pile of pillows and started on the first draft of Storytellers.

I’ve carried this particular idea in my head for years. I had a dream about three brothers, two of them fishermen, one a pastor, falling in love with the same woman. She married one of the fishermen, who mistreated her. The pastor listened to her confessions and became more and more angry until he decided to kill his brother. The woman hated him for his deeds, and he confessed them to the entire village. At the end, the pastor hid behind a tree, watching the church burn.

It was a very interesting dream in comparison with my usual “the geography teacher wants me to point out all the lakes in Northern Poland on a map but I am wearing no pants” nightly entertainment. I was never the sort of person who would remember dreams at all. Yet this one stayed with me for years, growing, expanding, evolving, pushing itself into my consciousness. It was inevitable that at some point I would surrender – and I had. I did my research, found some beta-readers, received some feedback, decided to ignore a large chunk of it, and on my 40th birthday, October 3, 2017, I held what I thought was the final version of my masterpiece. But the editor who was only supposed to fix my grammar and spelling expressed a few opinions that replicated my beta-readers’ feedback.

This was sixteen drafts ago.

My back improved, although I am unlikely to ever forge anymore. I went to Iceland and accidentally fell in love with the country. Every time I finished a draft and sent it to the editor I would think “I am SO done with this, I never want to look at this book again”. Every time she would send it back, I would look at her comments and think “challenge accepted”. I read books on craft, joined writing groups, started a website, a Twitter account, but most importantly I went on writing, revising, editing, revising, writing, editing… In order to write 104 thousand words present in the 19th draft I must have gone through at least two million words.

My characters, originally barely silhouettes secondary to the story, took lives of their own. They started having quirks, personalities, voices. A lot of secrets and conflicts were uncovered, and I have to admit some of them surprised even me. My editor became my mentor and once she realized I could take creative feedback she stopped behaving as if she were walking on eggshells. Initially unwilling to remove any of my in-jokes I discovered the fun that laid in killing my darlings. As time (and drafts) passed, I began to shyly consider the idea that I might have become a writer.

I discovered the power of words about ten years ago. Out of all places, it happened during a training course on time management. The trainer mentioned that when we missed a tram, we often whipped ourselves with thoughts along the lines of “I’m so dumb, I’m so lazy, why can’t I ever get up earlier”, etc. Then he pointed out none of those thoughts are going to affect the public transport in any way and suggested listening to music or daydreaming instead. To me, this was a life-changing revelation. I never realized how much harm I was causing by myself by ruminating over those negative thoughts. Soon after the course I discovered that choosing different words, different thoughts could turn an awful day into a very nice one, and my self-loathing into a sliver of self-esteem.

When I first called myself “a blacksmith”, I was terrified I’d be found out by a REAL blacksmith. “Have you ever made a gate for a castle? No? HAHAHAHAAAAA! Who do you think you are?!” This never happened. The community embraced me. I received a lot of help and encouragement. Once my forging career ended, I found it was easier to gather courage to call my Facebook page and website “Bjørn Larssen – Writer”. I realized that a writer is a person who is writing, and this time I was one. So far, no Writerly Authority descended on me demanding proof (as in Big 5 publishing contract) that I was a Real Writer.

The original idea was “how I became a writer”. When I look back upon my life, the first answer that comes to mind is “reading”. Another answer could be “spine injuries”. Or “that dream”. Or “the existence of Iceland”. But did I ever really become a writer? I’d say I grew up into becoming one.

Richard Lowe

2 thoughts on “Bjørn Larssen: How I Became A Writer (Guest Blog)

  1. Thomas Eyre Reply

    Well done Bjorn, I’m glad you persevered with writing. Your experience parallels my entrance into the realms of the author, with the exception that I wrote a piece for my school work when I was aged around eleven. My English teacher thought it was good enough for me to read out loud to the assembled school and parents at a church service just before Christmas in 1968. I was so traumatised by the event that from that day on, my English was only ever mediocre at best and would never stand out again.

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