Shaun Levin

Inside a Book

In Writing on September 23, 2020 at 8:17 pm

I met a man many years ago who gave up on writing. At the time, I’d known him for 4 or 5 years and had seen him try to write and succeed in writing and complete a novel. When he gave up he had been writing for many years but with limited success and an overall sense that he was neither enjoying the process nor able to achieve the kind of work he was striving for.

This was many years ago, maybe 15, and I remember being both astonished and awed by his decision, his announcement that he’d no longer be a writer. The struggle was over. He may have said that he wasn’t sure what he would do instead but that he did know that he would never write again. I might be exaggerating about the last bit. I have no idea where he is now nor whether he ever returned to writing. To be honest, I don’t remember his name (although we do have a mutual friend), but I do remember the moment when he said what he said in that large room in Soho at that dining table with the London light coming in through the windows, muted by the general grey of the city. I remember the relief in his voice, in his face: at last he was free from some burden that had clung to him for too long.

Astonished the one could just give up.

I have not always been loyal to writing but then writing has not always met my needs. For many years I relied on writing to fulfill my needs. Maybe we were co-dependent, maybe I asked for too much, maybe writing asked for too little in return. And so I drifted away for a while and found myself doing other things. I played with other art forms – photography, illustration, bookbinding – and because they were not “my” art forms and I was an amateur, there was no pressure, no bar, no history. All there was was now and the joy of the experiment. There was what there was in the beginning of my writing life: only the writing. No expectation, no assumption of an observing eye, a reader. Everything I did was for the writing itself.

And suddenly, colour mattered, colour was available. Composition on a single page mattered. It was possible to put a small image on a large page. Each page was a canvas, is canvas. Take a photograph and put it on a page and it’s possible for the page to be done, complete. You don’t have to fill it with words, the most difficult, demanding, and exacting of mediums.

I think what I’m exploring here is the question of what constitutes a book? Or: What are the options available to us when we’re faced with a blank page, even a single page? And: At what point are words not enough? At what point is the use of words too much? And when they’re too much or not enough, what are the options available to a writer? What are the other performances you can do in a book? What can you do inside a book that will excite you to keep making work?

Who & What to Include

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 21, 2020 at 11:27 pm

Watching the documentary about Fernando Torres on Amazon Prime got me thinking about what makes a good story about a single person, whether as biography, autobiography, or the tale of a fictional character. One answer is that the story is not primarily about them. Even Cinderella is not really all about Cinderella: there’s the ball and the sisters, the prince, his search, the glass slipper, there’s the fairy godmother and the pumpkin, there’s a lot going on and Cinderella might be present at most of it, but what makes the story a good story are all those elements that are not her.

In the documentary, there’s the team Torres plays for, there’s his country and the other countries he has lived in, there’s the Atlético Madrid Stadium, which is now a ghost (demolished), but was still visible from my apartment when I moved here a year ago, his coaches, his wife, his parents, his past, images of him growing up, him on the beach in Japan, his manager, sports commentators. The story of any character is made up of the stories of others.

How do you tell an autobiographical story and not make yourself the focus. Tell the story of your lovers, the story of letters received, objects held onto, gifts, documents, places you’ve been, but tell the story of those places, turn the camera to face away from you, who are the faces looking at you? What do others see? A kind of: Enough about me, tell me what you think about me. But in a way that makes the other characters the focus, the ones who are not you.

Find the reason that the story is being told. What has made you stand here and open your mouth to sing that aria? In the case of Torres, the present-day timeline – the reason for telling the story – are the three days leading up to his retirement from football.

What serves as the backbone to your story? What’s the duration of the framework, the temporal framing. There’s probably a technical word for this, but that sounds technical enough, perhaps too technical, because really the question is: at what point are your starting your story and by knowing the timeline, you’ll have a sense of where the story will probably end. I guess in the case of most biographies the time-frame is a life, birth to death, but if that person is alive, maybe the end point is a moment of rebirth into a new chapter that is beyond the ken of the book you’re now reading.

You think the story is about one thing but actually it’s about something else. You think it’s a story about survival, but really it’s a story about self-realisation and living an authentic life. The time frame is the achieving of that, or the promise of that, or the beginning of achieving that. Put into words what you think your story is about, because then you can begin to question your assumption and explore if the story might actually be about other things, too, and those other things could bring more stories that’ll add layers to your work. Maybe it’s a story about courage, about not being afraid. Maybe it’s a story about fear.

In the end Torres realises that… No. Watch it. It’s a good lesson in structure, variety, and the scope of a story.

A New Book, Perhaps

In Writing on September 20, 2020 at 1:34 pm

To begin a writing project is to say “yes” to the unknown. To begin a book is to embark on a journey with no end in sight but with the faith that there will be one. The journey of a book is by its nature a journey with an end. Let’s begin again. A book project is a journey with an end. Maybe that’s where we have to put our trust, in the fact that there will be an end, that we’ll start this book and if we keep going there’ll be an end, and after that there’ll be another book. But we want to be consumed, like in any relationship, we want this to be the most important thing, the one that matters the most.

To begin a book is to choose this book. Of all the other possible books to write, I choose you. Why this book? The promise, the breadth, the ratio of known to enigmatic, the range, the fun we could have, the allure of a writable book. Yes, I could write you and it could be fun. You will being mystery and comfort to my life. I choose you.

A book is a mystery and a promise. A farewell to something. An exorcism.

We take on a book because there is something nagging at us and we’re not sure why, or we want to tell a story and there’s an answer to something we sense we will find there. There’s something there to discover. Also: It’s a test (not the precise word, but close enough) to see if it’s possible to hold this story in the form of a book. And the journey will be the journey to finding the right form. We like the challenge, or the idea of a challenge, the possibility that it will improve the quality of our lives, whether through the joy of doing it, the possible rewards – financial, emotional, romantic – or, again, the exorcism, the opening of the way to other books. Those motives and others are there. Maybe it’ll take the writing of the book to discover what it was that compelled us to write it.