“The writer must write,” according to Ernest Hemingway. Easier said than done for anyone who has ever experienced writer’s block, that painful drying-up of ideas and inspiration.
Or is it? On a recent holiday to Norway, I visited the Museum of the Norwegian Resistance in Oslo and read the story of a man who wrote against incredible odds.
Petter Moen, a Jewish insurance salesman, was born in 1901 and by the time of the Second World War was an active member of the Norwegian resistance movement. He fought the Nazi occupation of Norway with words: by editing one of the resistance movement’s secretly-published newspapers, London Nytt. In early 1944, several of these papers were discovered and raided by the Nazis, and Moen was arrested along with many others.
He was imprisoned at Møllergata 19, a prison in Oslo. He spent the first several weeks in solitary confinement, and it’s there that his urge to write triumphed in a most incredible fashion. Without access to pen or writing paper – indeed, without access to much in the way of light – he made a daily record of his thoughts and feelings by forming individual letters and then words by pricking holes on pieces of toilet paper with a nail. To ensure they would not be found by his captors, he rolled the pieces of paper up and dropped them into a ventilator shaft beneath his cell.
This makeshift diary covers his first seventy-eight days of solitude, revealing an immense mental and emotional struggle against loneliness and despair. To keep himself sane, he worked long mathematical problems out by hand, meticulously pricking out the tiny letters and symbols as he went. He debated, on paper, the existence or otherwise of a kind God. The final papers go on to document his last few weeks at Møllergata, as he spent time with other starving prisoners and wrote about their preoccupation with food and survival.
The manuscript was found some time after the war in 1949 and was published posthumously. Petter Moen died in September 1944 whilst being transported in the SS Westfalen which sank after hitting a naval mine.
When we read of Petter Moen, or of Anne Frank, whose writing took place in a very different but perhaps only slightly less pressured environment, what are we to make of their lives and their writing? Given that many of us struggle to write at the best of times, what lay behind their absolute determination to set down on paper what was in their hearts and minds – and is there anything the rest of us can learn from it?
Perhaps only the following. Behind the mystery of the impulse to write, and behind the thorny obstacle of writer’s block, lie some simple truths. Writers must write; they will write what they are impelled to by outer or inner circumstance; and – perhaps – if it’s really meant to be, it will always be possible to find a way.