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Learning to Write

I spent July to September 2023 with a literary grant at the Künstlerhof Schreyahn in Wendland to write literature. Because now everyone is asking: »So, how did it go?« Here’s my report.

I had applied for this artist residency run by the state of Lower Saxony because my first novel is set on a farm in a village in Lower Saxony. I thought the landscape and the agricultural environment would inspire the work on the book—and this turned out to be true.

From the beginning of July to the end of September, I experienced the entire harvest season. Every evening I rode my bike into the fields at sunset and realized how much has changed since I was involved with agriculture as a child and since I moved to Hamburg 20 years ago.

Landschaft im Wendland

The Artist House

Most of the time, the main house of the Künstlerhof was uninhabited and the silence there unbelievable. The big hall smells of great writers and cigarettes, although smoking has been prohibited there since 2007. The piece of paper with which the municipal mayor annouces the smoking ban is still pinned in the entrance hallway, in a plastic sleeve. On the clock next to it, it is forever twenty to eight, but the second hand is still ticking. Clocks hang throughout the house and they all stand still.

The remodeled farmhouse felt like a time capsule from 1980s West Germany. Behind the thick glass door in the hall, I wrote at a table with a brown tabletop and light wood edge. A hammered copper pitcher in the middle with three dying sunflowers and under one of the drooping heads a powdered circle of pollen. From the inside, flies banged against the pane of the hall door; from the outside, the hands of bicycle tourists had left greasy marks.

In the hall: books. Books, books, books where cows used to stand in stables and where hay lay under the roof. Classics of world literature, works from the 1970s and 1980s, and some current publications by former artist residents. If I hadn’t been there to write, it would have pleased my bookseller heart to organize and maintain the libraries there.

Diele des Künstlerhofs Schreyahn

The Writing Process

Instead of putting libraries in order, I spent much more time writing during my three months as a artist in residence than I would have otherwise alongside my job. I expanded the rough draft of my novel from 75 pages to 150 pages. But the writing wasn’t always easy. Because my novel has an autobiographical origin, I am confronted with myself in the writing. At the beginning of my stay, I was full of doubts: Can I do that at all—literary writing? But the continuous work on the text has took this uncertainty away.

At first, the narrative was based primarily on my own memories, but over the course of three months it evolved away from my family’s story. What had »really« happened became less important, and it became more about how I told and constructed the story-from what perspective, in what tone of voice, with what attitude.

A chance encounter with the writer and former artist in residence Charlotte Gneuß contributed to this development. Charlotte came by the Künstlerhof one evening in July and rang my doorbell because she had also lived in »my« studio apartment. We got to talking about writing and hit it off right away. Her thoughts about my story and her offer to read and comment on some of my texts were an important impulse for my work in the weeks that followed.

Two weeks before the end of my stay, we organised an event where I read an excerpt from my novel and a text from a collection of essays I am working on in parallel. 25 people listened and the reactions were positive. I had not expected any professionals in the audience, but a former editor was there and she offered to put me in touch with an agent. Thanks to her, I know what my next steps are so that I can start looking for an agent: Write a synopsis that summarizes the novel’s story in two pages and complete a 30-page text sample.

Lesung mit Chris Campe im Künstlerhof Schreyahn, Foto von Hari Klein

Foto: Hari Klein

The Result

In Schreyahn, I spent three months trying out life as a full-time writer. Since I returned to Hamburg, I have come to appreciate my actual profession as a designer again, because visual design requires much less concentration from me than working on my novel. This new appreciation for my profession is a nice side effect of my time at the Künstlerhof.

Again and again, I’ve heard from former fellows who moved to the Wendland region after their stay at the Künstlerhof. So if the Künstlerhof is a kind of advertising campaign for the sparsely populated region—it is successful, I could also imagine moving there eventually.

Until that happens, I’ll keep writing, driven by the goal that the nameless Walsrode high school I attended as a student will one day be named »Chris Campe Gymnasium.« A brass plaque will shine on the gate of our former farm: »The writer Chris Campe lived here«. And the town of Walsrode realizes that it should finally give up the designation »Hermann Löns Town«, which it has carried as an epithet since 1935. In this new milllenium, Walsrode decides to abandon the name of that nationalist regional writer who was much appreciated by the Nazis in favor of the tag line »Chris Campe Town«.

I’m working on it. Think big—it doesn’t cost anything.

Chris Campe, fotografiert von Hari Klein

Foto: Hari Klein

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