Shaun Levin

What Is a Writer?

In Writing on November 3, 2020 at 4:05 pm

What, then, she says, is a writer?

He likes to think he takes the generous approach and tells her a writer is someone who writes, who puts pen to paper and keeps doing it regularly. The truth is he’s surprised by her question, as if he’d never considered it, never been asked. The more common questions are: Can anyone be a writer? Have we all got a book in us? Can writing be taught?

A writer, overwhelmed with the stuff in their head, reverts to the page to vent, as in: to let off steam, as in: to decompress, as in: to let out what has been bubbling up inside (for generations). A writer needs the page in order to think deeply. Joan Didion said something about writing in order to know what she’s thinking. And Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” A writer knows, or likes to think, that with writing will come sense. A writer knows there is no limit to stories.

A writer does their thinking on the page. A writer prefers (“is excited by,” would be more precise) is excited by details more than abstractions, stories more than actions, a rhyme every now and then, when we’re not sure what to… A writer is never satisfied. A writer wants more. A writer knows that after a story comes another story. (There’s no such thing as writer’s block.) What comes after a story? Another story. Who said that? Elie Wiesel? Sholem Aleichem? He saw it once in a book of Jewish storytelling.

A writer is saved by words, by other writers, by the stories of other writers, but more than the stories, by the sentences themselves, the voices of other writers, even just one writer. If you have one writer you keep returning to because they save you, you’re a writer. A writer delights in their own performance on the page, is surprised by it. What? I wrote that? Impossible! A writer, like a good cook, knows when their food is delicious, because it is delicious to them, and also knows that what they’ve cooked up is not entirely of their making. Writers know there is some kind of organising principle in the universe, and we work to try and move with it, make sense of it, and offer up glimpses of it on the page.

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, 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 after the other,

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 word) that invites a more fluid approach to the page. In other words: Here’s a page. Now, do whatever you want on it. Start wherever you want, draw, write, colour in, erase, strike-through, paste over, write in circles, in panels. Every page is a series of questions about composition. How will I compose this page, now that I have more than words at my 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 no choice but 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, the different ways you can feel it.

I knew someone whose handwriting was so tiny that I had to scan their letters and 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 you could be another sort of artist, what would you be? Dancer? Painter? Singer? Mime?

*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.