Berlin After Writing: Three Authors Talk City and Craft

What's it like to write a book in Berlin? Does the city live up to its artistic reputation? And what does the changing city mean for artists?

What I remember of Berlin: long walks through graffiti-lined streets as I wrestled with ideas in my head; beers and Foosball in smoky bars. A diet of Döner Kebabs and junk food as I tried to stretch each Euro to copper wire for a little more time. But mainly just a series of dark apartments and the glow of my laptop screen as I typed word by painstaking word.

Berlin has such a big reputation you assume whatever you do will be epic

Writing a book in Berlin wasn’t like I imagined. The place has such a big reputation you assume whatever you do will be epic. Like the book will write itself and you won’t have to deal with things like bowel movements anymore.

It was nothing like that. I didn’t suddenly pass through the looking glass. I still got headaches and hangovers. I still fought with and fled from my demons. And I still high-tailed it out of there the moment I got a job: recruiting prison guards in an English prison. A good story, but one I’ll save for another time.

This left me wondering: was it just me, or was it the same for everybody? To find out, I asked two fellow authors who penned books from there.

Was it as good for you as it was for me?

Documentary maker, prize-winning TV journalist and author Jeroen Akkermans told me: “Writing is not as romantic as people make it out to be.” When writing his book Er Zijn Grenzen, (‘There are Borders/Limits’), his limitation was time.

“I would have loved to have gotten up in the morning with a glass of orange juice and just written. But because of my job, that wasn’t possible. So I wrote my book during the evenings and the weekends. As a result, I wasn’t able to go into as much depth as I would have liked.”

Sometimes I felt like I was in that movie Groundhog Day

Travel philosopher and professional vagabond Markus Obstmeier did have enough time. For a while, he was able to go to a café every day to write. It turned out that wasn’t all it was cracked up to be either.

“Sometimes I felt like I was in that movie Groundhog Day. But for me, it was the coffee place and every day writing a new awesome beginning to realize afterwards that it was not what I wanted and deleting it.”

It wasn’t just me, then. So: Is it still worth it to go to Berlin?

Markus thought so.

“There is a whole world to discover which is an underworld of art. Subculture is an understatement. That is absolutely inspirational. If you meet others who are passionate about what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if they’re writers or painters or whatever. Art. If he’s passionate about what they’re doing then you get some of that fire back.”

Jeroen agreed. “Berlin is a great city to live in, to think in, to work in… There isn’t just space to live and to park your car and to eat well, there is also space to think differently.”

Berlin is not like that. It is a question the city asks itself. In many ways, the city is the opposite of London

He’s been living here for nearly two decades and he can’t imagine living anywhere else. To him, Berliners are, “critical about themselves and their power. This allows them to get closer to their actual identity.” That resonates with his journalistic instincts.

Other world cities, like London and New York, have already been formed.

“Berlin is not like that. It is a question the city asks itself. In many ways, the city is the opposite of London. It has one thing that London doesn’t have and that’s that it doesn’t know where it’s going yet.”

Those are all things that make the city an exciting place for writers to be. But of course, this formlessness and the attractive power it has does mean it’s evolving rapidly.

Is it transforming too quickly?

“A lot of people are sad that the city is changing.” Jeroen said, “Jeez, the city has been static for 50 years so obviously it’s going to change quickly. Every city should be moving. That’s part of it. Rules are getting laid down. A lot of people find that annoying. But if more and more people come to live here then it’s unavoidable. ”

Markus was a little more ambivalent. He told me about two artistic streams in the city.

If you’re an artist then you need to be creative. That includes finding the place where you can develop yourself. That’s still available in Berlin.

“The uphill stream is that there are more and more young people interested in art. Art can only grow and blossom if, in this region and country, there is welfare. If they are poor they will spend most of their time trying to get food.” But Berlin has moved beyond that.

Then there is the downhill stream.

“There are too many people and it’s hard to be noticed. The prices are also going up – particularly in the areas where the artists like to hang out. And this means only certain kinds of artists can afford Berlin.”

Jeroen recognizes that downward stream. At the same time, “If you’re an artist then you need to be creative. That includes finding the place where you can develop yourself. That’s still available in Berlin. You just have to find it. It’s no longer possible to arrive with your suitcase, to talk to people and to have a space tomorrow.”

Berlin Burning Brightly

So maybe Berlin is no longer for everybody. But then, writing a book isn’t either. They both require you accept it for what it is.

Markus discovered how true that was for writing after two weeks of Groundhog Day. A friend was “just sitting there and she was writing like hell. I would ask her ‘what are you writing’ and she would just say ‘I’m just writing what comes out of me’. And that was the breaking point. I realized that was what a writer should do. Just write.” He was right. In writing, there is no perfection. The best you can hope for is progress.

That’s good advice for Berlin too. It’s not perfect. It never was. But then, where is? And Berlin is still better than most. For that reason, if you dream of writing a book in Berlin then there is only one way forward.

Just go. Move forward. Take the plunge. Make the best of it when you get there.

If it doesn’t work out you can always leave again. That’s what I did. You’ll be happy to know that in England, they’re still looking for prison guards.

Cover Picture Courtesy of Nicola Holtkamp (Flickr Creative Commons)

Jelte ten Holt traded the ivory tower of academia for the dust of the road so he could write from the world’s many corners. He owns two bags and that's all he's rich with.