Today, writer, musician, and blacksmith, Bjørn Larssen, stops by to talk creative process. I was first introduced to Bjørn when I read the response on his blog to a guest blog post I wrote for The Creative Penn about why now is the best time to be a creator. I was immediately struck by the commonalities in our stories. (Not the blacksmithing, of course. I wish I were that badass! But the whole “picking one damn art form” thing.) Bjørn has such an interesting story, and I’m so glad he’s taking the time to share some of it with you all.
So, here you go, everyone, an interview with Bjørn Larssen.
What is your main form of creative expression?
I used to dabble in everything – graphic design, music, blacksmithing, drawing, playing various instruments, writing… When I turned 40 it occurred to me I wasn’t actually immortal, and my time was limited. My favourite Erica Jong quote kept ringing in my ears: “she dabbles brilliantly/in half a dozen talents/& thus embellishes/but does not change/our life”. I decided to pick one – writing.
Do you work as an artist/creative full-time or do you have a different day job?
This is actually a tricky question. I suffer from a chronic, disabling illness. There are days when I write for 12 hours, taking breaks for food and bathroom visits, but there are also days when breathing is hard work. Many writers swear by having a routine where they either work at certain hours or aim for a target amount of words per day, every day. In my case, none of those are possible. So I suppose the short answer to your question is “neither”.
How long have you been creating music/books/plays/films/etc.?
I started writing songs at the age of eight. The cutting-edge music software available back then allowed me to produce bleeps and bloops which made me delirious with excitement. Around 1996, when I was studying for my theoretical maths degree, I got a part-time job as an assistant for a graphic designer and ended up working as a designer myself for almost fifteen years. When I experienced a burnout in 2011, I realised I was equally unqualified for every other job on Earth, which gave me the freedom to pick one thing I’d be happy to suck at. I considered cage-fighting, architecture, psychology, but ultimately became a blacksmith apprentice.
I’ve been trying and failing to write a novel for many years, but it wasn’t until my spine injuries drastically limited my possibilities that I began to take writing seriously. Conveniently (and accidentally) I started working on my first “real” book on January 1, 2017. Easy date to remember!
How do you handle the pressures of creativity being your job? Or how do you find time to be creative if you have a separate day job?
I needed a psychologist to help me understand that despite the fact I wasn’t making money with writing it still counted as work. But even when I was perfectly healthy, I never held any job, paid or not, that wasn’t creative. These days due to my health I have to avoid putting myself in situations where I would find myself under pressure. One of the reasons I stopped producing music for other artists, which I did for years, were deadlines. Just the existence of a deadline made me sicker, which then ensured I wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline. Nowadays I permit myself to work when I can and don’t beat myself up (much) when I can’t. If one day I woke up and discovered my creativity disappeared, that would put tons of pressure on me! What would I do with my time? *hyperventilating a bit*
Do you engage in any additional creative hobbies? Are there any you’d like to try?
I rarely get envious, but I follow some visual artists who create absolute masterpieces. I know how many years of hard work are required to gain those skills – after four years working as a blacksmith I still often found myself making rookie mistakes or getting confused by my own designs. Apparently, I have a natural talent for painting and drawing, but I am not willing to put in the endless hours of practice. So I just admire others’ works. It’s similar with photography. I once took a six-month course and the main outcome of it was my realisation that I don’t actually have whatever it takes to become a good photographer.
A few years ago, I decided to become a guitar player. A few weeks after I bought my first (and last) electric guitar I realised I would need to practice for many years before I became any good, and lost interest. It turned out I wanted the result, but I had no interest in doing the footwork. Mark Manson coined the phrase “shit sandwich,” as in “What flavor of shit sandwich would you like to eat?” What he meant was that in order to find our true calling we have to be willing to start at the bottom and plod on even when it’s boring, difficult, when it hurts, when we feel like we will never amount to anything. I tried a lot of sandwiches. Most of them landed in the trash. But I know there will be more. My goal in life is to try everything twice.
Who are some other artists and creatives that inspire you to create?
Music-wise, my biggest inspiration has always been Mike Oldfield. Most people only know him for Tubular Bells, but he has recorded over thirty albums, ranging from a 60 minute instrumental Amarok to catchy pop songs like “Moonlight Shadow” and everything in between. Oldfield showed me that creativity knows no limits, that I don’t need to limit myself to one particular form of artistic expression. Sometimes I feel inspired when artists I love decide to go in a direction I dislike. When Massive Attack began to move away from organic trip-hop, I enlisted a bassist and guitar player to record a 19-minute trip-hop version of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You” largely because Massive didn’t feel like doing what I wanted them to.
When I still worked as a graphic designer, my main inspirations were Peter Saville and Mark Farrow. I first knew them for the record covers they created, then later found out they, too, refused to be easily boxed in. Farrow created elegant, striking, unique visuals. Saville stole anything he could, then presented it in new, creative ways, as if he was a visual remixer. I learned a lot from both of them.
My favourite writer and possibly biggest inspiration, even though I write in a completely different genre, is Marian Keyes. Her books touch upon very difficult subjects – addiction, depression, death of a loved one – yet still make me laugh. Michael Cunningham is a master of description and character building. Celeste Ng‘s Everything I Never Told You is a very short novel where every single word is necessary. Julio Cortazár, Terry Pratchett, Joanna Chmielewska… I don’t envy the masters. They motivate me to try harder.
Why do you create?
I wouldn’t know how to not create! The idea for my first novel – the first one that I’ve actually worked on beyond the first draft – came to me in a dream and I carried it in my head for three years. It just wouldn’t go away. The idea forced me to work on itself. Sometimes I’m in the shower or in bed trying to fall asleep, when suddenly a song lyric complete with melody pops up and refuses to leave until I do something with it. I’m watching a movie and I have to pause because a completely unrelated idea decided to strike right then and it wouldn’t let me watch until I at least wrote it down. It almost sounds creepy, doesn’t it? But it’s worth it for that feeling I get when I look at my metalwork, read something I wrote a while earlier or listen to an old song of mine, and I’m blown away. I created this?! Damn! I’m good! Let’s try and make something even better!
What advice do you have for other creatives?
Your work, no matter how great, will never be loved by everybody, and that’s okay. My favourite book of all time, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, has a measly 3.92 rating on Goodreads. One of last year’s biggest books has a rating of 4.3, I didn’t manage to read it because it made me cringe so hard it hurt.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing a historical suspense novel with fantasy elements, Storytellers, which will be available next year. A few months ago I started working on a second novel, urban fantasy inspired by my faith (I’m a Norse heathen). I’m also toying with the idea of recording a soundtrack to accompany Storytellers.
Where can people find you and your work?
My music, released under the name Ray Grant, is available on iTunes, Apple Music, Spotify and all other digital stores and streaming services. This playlist is a good introduction:
Thank you for letting me pick your brain, Bjørn! I love the idea of getting inspired when an artist goes in a direction you dislike. This happens to me a lot when a book/movie/TV show doesn’t end the way I think it should!