Shaun Levin

Conversations with the Page

In Writing on September 30, 2020 at 9:27 am

Me and B were talking about our changing conversations with the page, and by page I mean canvas or any blank space before you, waiting. Waiting. What do you say to the blank page? How do you approach it? What kinds of conversations are you having with that space before you? By conversations I mean the parameters in which you operate, the limits you set yourself, or the ways you choose to make contact with the page. With writing, the options are dictated by the activity itself, or at least the traditional way we approach writing. That is: you start on one side of the page – in our case: the left – and you keep going along a line until you reach the other end of the page, then you come back to the initial side and start again.

Line after line, one line then another, until you’re done for the day or have said what you have to say. Those are, to a large extent, the facts. That’s just the way writing works.

But what if you approach the page differently? These are the conversations I’m having at the moment as I embark on the making (creating, composing, writing, drawing) of a graphic novel*, a genre (horrible world) that invites a more fluid approach to the page. In other words: Here’s a page. Now, do whatever you want on it. You can start wherever you want, draw, write, colour in, erase, cross out, paste over, write in circles, in panels. Every page is a series of questions of how to compose it. What can you do when you have more than words at your disposal?

In a world that has become overwhelmingly digitised and where writing is done primarily on a keyboard, a device, a laptop, various ways except by hand on a page, the graphic novel offers a space where I feel I have to create by hand. It’s a genre (horrible word) that favours the movement of the hand on paper. I want to say something about the intimate relationship with the page, the different means by which you can fill it.

I knew someone whose handwriting was so tiny, I had to scan their letters to me, then read them as jpegs I could enlarge. There’s a kind of intensity and drillingdownness to such small writing, a concentration that makes me think of how, as a kid, I used the thick lenses of my glasses to burn blades of dry grass on those hot days in M’s garden in Summerstrand. Tiny words burn holes into pages.

Using words as a drawing tool is one step away from drawing. If I could really draw, with ease and skill, I mean really and truly draw, would I still return to words? Would I rely on words? If we had other options for an artistic practice, what would they be?

*This is where you can follow the making of my graphic novel.

Awkward Waiting

In Story, Writing on September 27, 2020 at 2:28 pm

This is the continuation of a previous post.

The agent’s friend comes home and he has one more day to stay in the house with the agent’s friend, husband and their three children (not four).

“Are you hiding in the garden shed?” she texted.

And just as he’s staring out the window, a hummingbird – he sees it, at first he thinks: butterfly, one of those big orange butterflies he’d seen the other day when he and his schoolfriend had been sitting in the garden, rusty orange with brown spots on its wings, but this is a hummingbird! a small bird – is it a hummingbird? hovering over the flowers, beak inserted into a purple flower, moving from one to the next, taking what it needs to take, hovering mid-air by flapping its wings, staying like that the way a kid might doggy-paddle to stay afloat.

For him there is an awkwardness to waiting. He’s awkward around waiting. Waiting makes him awkward. It’s awkward – waiting. Waiting? It’s awkward. It’s an awkward kind of waiting. Awkward waiting. And so he waits for his agent’s driver to come and pick him up for lunch.

“Half an hour,” the agent had said (it wasn’t). “He’ll bring you to the restaurant.”

Then it fills the house: a screech. He has never heard anyone scream so loudly. It’s as if the agent’s friend is possessed. A shout physical in its violence, a roaring, lashing out. It is ugly. He is sitting in the kitchen waiting for the driver when the scream tears across everything. Like an earthquake, no, more personal: a punch. Am I remembering something? he thinks. Was I shouted at with such – as if a monster had been unleashed. Awful. And afterwards the man had come downstairs as if nothing had happened, as if a monster had not been unleashed. The child had tried to defend himself. The other child had been in the kitchen and while the man shouts and the child tries to defend himself – but I, but I – the other child walks around the kitchen in a state of shock, waiting for it to be over.

The man had shouted things that he does not now remember, but it had something to do with the child pushing. “See what happens?” he’d screamed. “You push and you push and then look what happens.” If the man could hear himself he’d be shocked. It is, he thinks, the kind of shouting to call social services for, but this man is the agent’s special writer, a man who brings in a lot of money for the agent, probably more money than any of the other writers, and definitely more than he’ll ever earn for his agent.

What the agent’s friend doesn’t know yet is that a video of his teenage son is going viral online, a video of him yelling abuse at another driver and being filmed by that driver’s passenger. The words are sexist and arrogant, misogynistic, entitled, something so ugly that again he cannot remember what was being said, but what he will remember is the boy, a teenager of about 16 or 17, leaning out the window, arm on the side of the car and gesturing to his own car, referring to its price – was it 100,000? half a million? – the boy was out of control, on some kind of drug. But maybe not, maybe the teenager was as sober as the agent’s friend had been when he shouted “you push and push” at his child upstairs.

On the flight back to London he talks to the woman next to him who is flying to Rome. They talk about Barcelona; she was there in June with some old college friends. She’d stayed on for a couple of days after they’d all driven down from the Basque Country. He thinks: What have I learnt from this trip? What have I gained or lost or been through? Where is the character development? Soon I will be back in my life: the gym, work, love There’s a lover who will be happy to see me.

Whose Love Child Are You?

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 25, 2020 at 9:13 am

When I think of her I think of her and Alice in that apartment in Paris. Alice in Paris. Alice in Paris painting, painting, Basket panting, waiting. I see them walking the poodle, having Picasso over, come over, Pablo, come over Hemingway, so they all came over and the. I think of her sitting, big solid sitting like a matriarch, widowed, skirts and chins and hands, he said, like a Russian peasant. Immigrant hands, he said. How entertaining she is, having people over, how lucky we are to be invited. Gertrude Stein on the one hand.

Him on the other. Crossing America, coast to coast, maybe stopping in Denver to see Carlos, aka Alan. He, too, speaking French, him and Gertrude plotting in French in the salon on rue Cardinal Lemoine (but that’s Hemingway’s place, he realises when he awakes from the dream. The Stein-Toklas residence is at 27 Rue de Fleurus). Him drunk and in love with a girl called Mary Lou. I think of him hunched over a typewriter. In her case it’s Alice typing up handwritten pages, slightly high on hash cookies (recipe available in The ABT cookbook). With him there is the enduring image, I’ve told this story so many times I sound like a drunk, at City Lights Bookstore going round with his beret gathering small change so he can go out and buy wine for all to drink.

Most of what I know about him, what is remembered, is from the Ann Charters biography, my first guidebook to being a writer. Jack Kerouac was the first writer I read about in such detail and so I wanted to be like him, the kind of writer I wanted to be. Will you be my writer-daddy? Diana Souhami’s biography of Gertrude and Alice was my other guide, always her and Alice, never her alone. That’s how to be a writer, with a loyal companion who loves you blindly, openeyedly, warts and all. And all that matters is writing, art, making sentences, weirdly, drunkenly, uninhibitedly.

Who are the writers to whom your soul first clung for guidance? Who are the (dead) writers who parented you, showed you the way, let you tread in their footsteps?

But we are fickle, changing parents as years go by, weeks change, days, sometimes we have others, but they are the ones who endure, though sometimes we forget, the way we forget a dead parent who out of the blue, such beautiful blue, clear sky blue, reveals themself to us, or we do something and realise that yes, we’re doing this because of them, this way of writing, this way of being a writer, this fantasy of writerhood, this ambition, action, opening of the heart in a certain way before a certain thing, yes, I inherited this from Gertrude, this I inherited from Jack.

These are my parents (today): Gertrude and Jack.