Shaun Levin

Archive for April, 2011|Monthly archive page

What We Can Teach

In Writing, Writing Exercises, Writing Workshops on April 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm

We can teach how to open up a story, how to explore a moment, to make it last, to make that moment feel like time is important, that time passes slowly and quickly. That you can make leaps in time and that you can make a second last for three pages. There is a section in a story called “The Rainy River” in Tim O’Brien’s brilliant The Things They Carried where he does this with the kind of grace that leaves me breathless. It’s a moment when he’s deciding whether to jump off the fishing boat, swim across to Canada, and not go to war in Vietnam.

Here it is in full:

Bobbing there on the Rainy River, looking back at the Minnesota shore, I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation, as if I had toppled overboard and was being swept away by the silver waves. Chunks of my own history flashed by. I saw a seven-year-old boy in a white cowboy hat and Lone Ranger mask and a pair of holstered six-shooters; I saw a twelve-year-old Little League shortstop pivoting to turn a double play; I saw a sixteen-year-old kid decked out for his first prom, looking spiffy in a white tux and a black bow tie, his hair cut short and flat, his shoes freshly polished. My whole life seemed to spill out into the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or ever wanted to be. I couldn’t get my breath; I couldn’t stay afloat; I couldn’t tell which way to swim. A hallucination, I suppose, but it was as real as anything I would ever feel. I saw my parents calling to me from the far shoreline. I saw my brother and sister, all the townsfolk, the mayor and the entire Chamber of Commerce and all my old teachers and girlfriends and high school buddies. Like some weird sporting event: everybody screaming from the sidelines, rooting me on—a loud stadium roar. Hotdogs and popcorn—stadium smells, stadium heat. A squad of cheerleaders did cartwheels along the banks of the Rainy River; they had megaphones and pompoms and smooth brown thighs. The crowd swayed left and right. A marching band played fight songs. All my aunts and uncles were there, and Abraham Lincoln, and Saint George, and a nine-year-old girl named Linda who had died of a brain tumor back in fifth grade, and several members of the United States Senate, and a blind poet scribbling notes, and LBJ, and Huck Finn, and Abbie Hoffman, and all the dead soldiers back from the grave, and the many thousands who were later to die—villagers with terrible burns, little kids without arms or legs—yes, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were there, and a couple of popes, and a first lieutenant named Jimmy Cross, and the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War, and Jane Fonda dressed up as Barbarella, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and my grandfather, and Gary Cooper, and a kind-faced woman carrying an umbrella and a copy of Plato’s Republic, and a million ferocious citizens waving flags of all shapes and colors—people in hard hats, people in headbands—they were all whooping and chanting and urging me toward one shore or the other. I saw faces from my distant past and distant future. My wife was there. My unborn daughter waved at me, and my two sons hopped up and down, and a drill sergeant named Blyton sneered and shot up a finger and shook his head. There was a choir in bright purple robes. There was a cabbie from the Bronx. There was a slim young man I would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe.

(from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried)

We can teach what you can do with words. How you can start a sentence in an infinite number of ways, how you can say whatever you want and people will believe you. We want to believe what you put on the page and it is up to you to entertain us and transport us and do things for your own enjoyment, the way the poet dances naked when everyone is asleep in William Carlos Williams’s poem “Danse Russe”. You are here for your own enjoyment. Do things with words that delight you, that surprise you, that make you cry, the make you giggle.

We can learn how to do all these things, but we can only do them if we’re prepared to do soul work. The soul work of writing. And by that I mean that everything exists inside us, deep down, and in order to write honestly and with integrity we have to go to that place that is visible only to us, a place that is devoid of cliché, that is not drowned out by the voice of society and civilisation and television and the crowd. It may be a tribal voice, but it is so deep that it feels like it is only ours, because it is our memory placed on top of, or mixed with, wrapped up in tribal memory, all those stories and voices that we are born with, that exist in our DNA.

How can we teach a writer to go there, a person who wants to be a writer, rather than a person who wants to write. That distinction is one of the challenges of the teacher in any creative writing class or workshop, because so many people come because they want to write, or they want to try it out, but very few come because they want to be a writer, yet to teach well, you have to treat everyone as if they wanted to be a writer, give them a sense of what it means to be one, of what writing is actually about, of what it means to write. Teach them how to look, how to do things with words, how to create an effect, how to play, how to let go. Teach them about perspective and observation and how to slow down. The main challenge of writing is how to slow down, how to be in a story, in the world that you are creating.

It is technique. And it is soul work. It is individuality, and it is an acknowledgement of the context we’re working in, the centuries of writers, of people who have tried to make sense of the world, and entertain, and stay sane through putting pen to paper alone in a room. And that is the atmosphere you want to create in the classroom, the feeling that we as safe here in a group around a table as we are in our rooms, alone at our desks.

The more a teacher knows about their own process of writing, the better teacher they will be. You can teach best from your own place of struggling with the craft of writing, of translating the sensual into words. A workshop is really about making a space for people to write and experiment with words in ways they might not do on their own. Surprise them so that they will surprise themselves with what they write. Take them to a park and give them blindfolds and let them touch the plants and the grass and the barks of trees, then get them to write about that.

The New and the Known

In Writing on April 26, 2011 at 11:21 am

We must keep putting ourselves in situations that motivate us to write, keep reading the books that make us want to write, keep going to places that diminish the anxiety of facing the blank page. The south of France, if need be. Fiji. Our back garden. Or our writing desk. We must keep doing those things that make us want to sing, to break out into an aria. I was going to say that drudgery is the enemy, but I’m not sure it is. If that state of the mundane is what we need in order to sing, then we have to do whatever we can to maintain that state. But we also have to keep pushing ourselves, opening ourselves up to new ways of writing, new ways of telling, points of view that we haven’t even considered, points of view we’d never have come to on our own if we hadn’t read a certain book, or travelled to a certain place.

I suppose I’m talking about inspiration and where it comes from. A writer-friend said recently she needs to get her mojo back. She meant her writing mojo, but I would imagine that it’s her life in general she’s referring to. Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on my own, mainly because I have a few weeks, a couple of months, really, before I go back to teaching. I’ve been writing a lot and inhabiting the world as a writer. I’m trying to avoid anything that will get in the way of that. All I want to do is be in the writing zone, to live my life so that there is the maximum space for writing and for being a writer. What am I trying to say? The challenge and the struggle is to remain as open as possible to the world, to let things in, and still to remain focused on the project at hand.

To live in the world as a writer is to live as an undercover agent in your own life. You are always reporting back to someone, and that “someone” is an aspect of the self. Edward Albee said: “I write for me. The audience of me.” And Rebecca West: “…art has nothing to do with communication between person and person, only with communication between different parts of the person’s mind.” As writers, we are always going back to a place without scruples where we are alone with our various selves. But we must constantly engage with the world in order to enrich those selves.

I read because I love to. I read because I am constantly learning how to write, searching for new ways to approach a story, ways to mine the details of my experiences, stretch my imagination beyond what I thought possible. Once you have read American Psycho or the Marquis de Sade, you know you have a long way to go before you’ll be considered outrageous. We are always falling short, always failing. We can never write exactly what we want to write. How often do we really know what we want to write about. The sentence is illusive. We are always afraid to go that bit deeper.

We are inspired when we are at  our most open, our most vulnerable. In writing we can be clingy and fearful and desperate for reassurance, and by bringing that voice to the page, get a glimpse of what it’s like to be stronger, to immerse ourselves in those feelings and emerge unscathed. The muse cannot be called upon, which is why, of course, we call upon him, or her, or whatever. But it is up to us to go after the things that inspire us, to work out what those things are and to go after them, to track them down, to visit them over and over again, those places and books and situations that allow us to be as open as possible. And we must keep trying out new books, going to new places, doing things we’ve never done before. They create in us a desire to write, to burst into song. All these things apply to sitting at home at your writing desk, being open to new things, to discovering what you don’t yet know about the story you’re writing, and the one you’re living, the narrative of yourself… those ideas and stories and proclamations and memories that are inside you, waiting for you to notice, and record.

The Dalai Lama says: “Once a year, go somewhere you’ve never been before.”

The Language in Our Mouths

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 24, 2011 at 11:40 am

The language we write in is not the same as the one we speak in. It may seem to be the same, it may have the same words and the same grammar, but it is not the same language, in that it is not the same material, because its function is different. To write authentically, in a voice that is uniquely our own, we have to try and capture the words as we learnt them first, unfettered, our first encounter with language, the language we spoke when we were coming into ourselves, into who we were and our understanding of the world. We have to write first and foremost in that tongue that was spoken to us and which we spoke for the first years of our life. That is the language through which the world came into being, in which objects and feelings and landscapes were first named, and that is the language we must write in. Thos are the words that resonate with the first discovery. (Just as writing by hand puts the body in touch with the first time we learnt to write, with that first discovery of what happens when we put lines and squiggles on a page and they mean something.)

This is always a difficult issue in a workshop situation when working with people who are new to English, but still want to write in English. Even though they are not fluent in it, nor fluid. You have to feel that you can swim in a language, that you can move with fluidity and without thinking. All you have to do is move your limbs and you can move. Once you can swim you cannot remember what it was like not to swim. So it is with language; very rarely do we remember where and when and under what circumstances we learnt a word. Not the word “very” nor “rarely” nor “do” nor “we” nor “remember”. I would question what is it that people who want to write in a language that is not their own are escaping from. What do they want to avoid in their own language that writing in another language would not confront them with. A language that is not our own can only tentatively and incompletely and unsuccessfully take us back to the formation of our selves, to the core of us.

And yet, with that, writers are people who remember their fascination with language, especially if we have grown up with more than one language around us and witnessed how each word opens up our universe. I remember phrases in Afrikaans that I learnt from my father, questions I asked him about them, and that moment of the word being translated, and once it is translated it is mine, too, not just belonging to those who know. I remember the phrase “tussen die boom en die bas” from my father and “al dran aapn goue ring, bly hy nogn lelike ding“. And I remember words from Agnes, the woman who worked in my father’s house from before I was born. The woman who was referred to as the maid or the nanny or the help. But no different, I sometimes think, though thirty years have passed since I last saw her, than a mother. I remember listening to her speak with Maud or Cecilia or Johnson, any one of the other women and men who lived with us in those years that I grew up in South Africa, that land of multiple languages.

And I remember the fascination with English too, for somehow, even though English was the language I grew up in, there was always a sense that it was a second language, a language from elsewhere, that belonged to other people. But what language was really mine, I didn’t know. Maybe Hebrew. Hebrew was the language of the Jews. No one could question my link to Hebrew. There was nothing incongruous in my imagination of me speaking Hebrew. I learnt to read it by the time I was thirteen, by the time I had to stand up and sing my haftorah at the Summerstrand shul, but I did not understand what I was saying. I couldn’t open a Bible or a book and understand what the words I was reading meant. After two years of living in Israel, I spoke fluent Hebrew.

It helps not to feel entirely at home in a language, to maintain a sense of wonder and surprise. But we also need to be able to swim in the language we write in, to not think about it when we are putting our senses onto the page, to not feel tripped up by our limitations. We cannot let language come between us and expression. We have to be able to use language to express the things that have nothing to do with language, like small and taste, like a landscape, like the sound of chewing. Language in our mouth. Our tongue.

(But if a writer acknowledges their limitations, their being at odds with the language they have chosen to write in, a language that is not theirs from birth, could that then add integrity to the voice?)

On Being Ready to Speak

In Writing on April 22, 2011 at 5:11 pm

It takes years to learn how to write, and by that I mean: to learn how to say what you want to say in the way it needs to be said. I am also talking about Voice. It takes years. No one expects a baby to speak properly from the start. The desire to speak is not enough to bring about the capacity to do so. It’s heartbreaking that it should take so long. Why can’t we know how to write  just because we want to write?

We have to enjoy that time of babyness, of learning how to write, of learning what our voice sounds like, of copying other people, imitating the ones we love, the ones who bully us, and try to be stronger, try to …. learn how to curse and how to fit in, but also to become aware of what our voice sounds like when we’re on our own, away from everyone and everything and what we sound like to ourselves, in our solitude, in our, excuse the cliché, heart of hearts. To really know – yes, in one’s heart of hearts! – that learning how to write takes years, can save one a lot of heartache. It puts rejection into perspective! Some people take longer, and some people are quicker. Some of us have less unlearning to do, less untangling from the dictates of bad and well-meaning teachers and “the right way” to write.

When I look back at some of my early work, and some of my writing in notebooks from twenty and thirty years ago, I am shocked by how evident the babyness is in my voice, a voice that is not yet ready to speak. I wonder if there are some writers who are made to think, just because they have published a book, or because they have a good (ie. tragic, gossip-worthy, anecdotal) story to tell, or just because they have finished writing a book and someone has accepted it and published it and maybe they have even won a prize for it, prizes even, but still they are not yet ready to speak, not yet ready to stand up on a podium, as a three-year old is not, and tell their story to the world. We don’t expect that of a three-year old. And some three-year olds – some of us – and maybe it’s necessary that we don’t know that, that we don’t know that we’re not yet ready, that we can talk to the world, so that we can send stories out and enter competitions, and approach agents and publishers, because we want to be part of the world of books and writing and writers and that’s what we have to do, to behave like writers, to see what its like, to try it out, to be rejected, to fail, and every now and then to have someone say yes to us, so that we can keep learning to speak, to make our voice even clearer, and even more our own.

How do we learn to write? (Note to self: Research the stages of how a child learns to speak, what the stages are of the voice, how the voice and speech come into being.) We listen to others, we listen to how others speak and notice how they get things, what they say in order to create an effect, what they say to make us cry, to make us happy, and what they expect and want us to say. We observe. Those years when we’re gurgling and speaking gibberish, we’re watching, learning how to formulate words, trying things out, getting them wrong, not being understood, and yet we keep going, because one day we will be understood, we will make our needs known, our feelings, we will be able to tell what we saw when those we love aren’t there to witness it. In our first few years it seems there are always witnesses to our lives, to every moment of what we do, except when we are asleep, or alone in our cots.

One of the reasons we learn to speak is to feed back to those who weren’t there. We want to be able to come home and say this is what I saw, this is what happened to me when you weren’t there. And we want to go out into the world at some point… or at some point we want to go out into the world and tell strangers, tell new people, what has happened to us at home. We have to get to the point of leaving home, of wanting to leave home, so that we can tell others what happened to us there.

Read up about the compulsion to tell a story? Why do we tell our story? And who do we want to tell our story to? Ask psychologists and traditional storytellers. Ask painters and musicians.

The Daily Find

In Writing on April 20, 2011 at 6:10 pm

Four days have passed since the last post. So much for twenty minutes a day! What better time to talk about the habit of art, the dedication, the ritual, the bum-on-seat thing. Guilt is a great motivator. Sometimes I think that without guilt, it might take us longer to get back to our writing desks, those of us who don’t rush to it on a daily basis. There are times when I go to my desk willingly, and others when it feels like torture, when I can literally feel my feet dragging along the very old carpets (which the landlord refuses to change) in my house. Mary Oliver talks about the importance of turning up at your desk every day. She says that if we do it every day, the muse is more generous; if we appear every day, so will the muse. I think it’s important to have a particular place to go to to write, a desk, a sofa, a cafe, somewhere that is the same every day, so that it feels like a turning up, a reporting for duty. For writing, the more you do it, become a duty. At some point you make the choice to do it, to define yourself by it. I wonder if the daily reporting for duty becomes harder once one has made that choice. In the beginning I found it easier to write every day, especially in the days before I had published very much, before I had been to many workshops, before I taught regular workshops, before I thought that anyone would want to read what I had written. I kept notebooks, and as Natalie Goldberg told me to do, I completed a notebook every month, a whole spiral-bound cheap notebook. Nothing too precious, she said. And what that keeping of a notebook did was made me acutely aware of my surroundings, of the value of everything: conversations, feelings, landscapes, the poetry and writings of others. Everything went into it. The keeping of the notebook was my apprenticeship. At least ten years. That’s how long the writer’s apprenticeship is. In an ideal world, you would not publish a thing in that times. You would go deeper and deeper into yourself and your vision and your way of recording the world. And then you would say something. There is great advantage – at least that’s what I tell myself – to not having published anything substantial for the first ten or fifteen years of my writing life.

For further exploration: publication, the habit of art, keeping a notebook. To read: Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”.

Forget the Self

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Writing is a spiritual act and the writing workshop is a spiritual place. The place where we write is a place where we need to feel completely open and completely omnipotent and completely protected. If we feel threatened or in danger we cannot write the stories we are meant to write, the stories that want to come out of us. It is not about love, but about safety. Perhaps we need to feel unloved in order to write (or to believe in God), and perhaps we need to feel threatened in the world in order to write, but the place where we sit down to write needs to be a place of complete safety, even if that place is just in our head. Who are the writers who wrote in unsafe conditions? In prison, in the death camps, on the run, while suffering domestic violence. Where did they go in order to write? What was the place they went to in their heads? Is revenge and rage a protective shield? Solzhenitsyn wrote A Day in the Life after he’d been released from the gulag.

Because we all feel threatened and unloved and imprisoned at various times of the day and in different times in our life, we come to writing to feel safe, to feel safe in a way that will allow us to explore, to go deeper into ourselves. And when I say “we” I mean those of us who want to be writers, those of us who have something that compels us to tell a story, rather than just those of us who want to write. It is the writing tutor’s job to honour that and to create a space that acknowledges the yearning that people bring to the situation, to create a sense that there is room for everyone.

I think that is what we need to do when we sit down to write, on our own, alone in a room, to allow every possibility to appear on the page, to be open to surprises and the unexpected. When I am running a workshop, in those two or three hours of writing, I want to be in a space where all that matters is writing, in a headspace where all that is important is writing and the writing of the good story, the good line, to go to a place that is entirely one’s own, that is not in the mind, but in the body, so that it feels like you’re pulling stories out of… that you’re threading stories out of your body, from your flesh, rather than from your mind. We have to be able to write from our body, to bring our chest and our guts and our genitalia to the putting of pen on the page.

The process is not about the head. The head might come in later, in the editing and rewriting. It has to be like dancing, like music, like singing badly in the shower, to come to it with your whole body, unafraid, unguarded.

But what if I go mad?

Then you are lucky.

Writing is probably not going to make you mad, but if you can have those moments in your writing when you feel you are going mad, when you feel that everything is unravelling and yet you can still keep writing, if you can keep writing through that, then you will write great work. You will touch on things that only you can touch, because they are from your body, from inside you. I want to say: I do not allow computers and laptops and ipads in my workshops. I want to say: When you have written for ten years by hand, then you can write with a laptop. You will not discover a true intimate and authentic voice if you don’t write by hand. To write on a computer involves the head too much. You cannot forget yourself and switch off your thinking faculties when you’re working on a computer, especially not in a group with other people around you. A computer =is not an intimate thing, it’s not just you and the page, there are too many distractions. Page numbers and word counts and whatnot. And the internet, the little icons that tell you things and threaten to lure you away from your body and from forgetting yourself. The forgetting of the self is necessary in order to write.

Led by Language

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

In a workshop. I think of these sessions as workshops, as a place to explore, rather than an arena in which something is taught, which the word “course” implies, as if there is a way, a course, a right way and a wrong way. People bring a lot of anxiety to the beginning of a workshop. An an expectation to be told. To be told how to do it and also to be told they can do it. That they have what it takes to be a writer. A lot of people say at the beginning that they want to find out if they can do it, if they’ve got what it takes. Very rarely do people say that they want to find out if they want to do it. Some of the anxiety at the beginning is the fear about what others will say, that everyone will be better than me, that I’ll make a fool of myself. How many of us have had our creative endeavours ridiculed or rejected? How many of us where told we didn’t have what it takes to paint or draw or write or dance or sing. And then what happened to that joy, that joy we once had, and that desire to sing, to paint, to dance. To write. Some people bring to the beginning of a workshop a long history of wanting to write and not doing it, or doing it in secret.

There is a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning of a workshop, an urgency, a willingness to dive in. With that, often comes a hungry desire to learn, to try new things. Many people are open to the magic of writing, to doing things with words they didn’t know were possible. It’s exciting to witness people enjoying their own writing. And yet, that enthusiasm can also come with an ignorance of what it means to write, what it takes to be a writer. Often it is those people who come with the greatest enthusiasm who do not return to the workshop after the first session. I think it opens up something fragile inside them. It opens up a great yearning and makes it visible to them, and to everyone else. They witness their own hunger and either realise how insatiable it is, or that it is murkier than they thought it was. That somehow there is something perverse in this desire to create, to write. Maybe they see that the desire to write isn’t about writing, but about something else, and they prefer to remain with the desire to write, rather than to actually write. Because to write is to touch on all the other things that want to be brought to the surface, to make themselves known.

And then there are those people who come to a workshop just to see what it’s about and they keep going, they write and write and write, and change their lives to make room for writing. Some leave their jobs. They go to more courses, a residential here and there. The beginning is full of unknowing, but also, often, an exhilaration that yes, I am finally doing it.

At the beginning of a workshop I like to take it slowly, to do some work in pairs, in small groups. I like people to think of the workshop as a safe place and a fun place. I like doing playful exercises, for people to see that writing is about playing, that with all the seriousness involved in embarking on big writing projects – like a novel, for example – you have to be prepared to play and to be open to the unexpected, to let language lead you sometimes, to let language take you into story, to let words derail you, to realise that there are words being sent up from the unconscious because they are e beginning of a thread, a rope to hold onto and pull and see where it carries you.

What “The Reader” Wants

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Why do people come to writing workshops? For fun, for the company, to learn some techniques, tools of the trade. But they also come because they can’t do it on their own. There’s something about the process that feels unmanageable or unknown. We all need reassurance, someone to tell us we can do it. After fifteen years of teaching creative writing, I still love going to writing workshops – to learn new things, to see what other writers are doing. I like reading my work out loud. I think that is another reason people come, so that they can be heard, so that they can have an audience. One of the hardest things to manage when you’re writing on your own is that for a lot of the time, you have no audience, you’re working in a void. You are your only audience. You are the stage and the performer and the cheering crowd. How does one get used to that? There’s something unnatural about it. We’re not supposed to play on our own for so many hours in the day, to create just for ourselves. But for long stretches of the writing process you’re on your own. You have to forget your “audience”. You will create your best work when you write only for yourself.

Don’t bring the reader into the process! The “reader” (or what we think the reader is) can be a damaging factor if brought into the equation, especially in a workshop situation. We all have our own readers in mind, the reader we think of, but the reader I think of and the one you think of, the one anyone thinks of, is never the same. What would it be like to exclude talk of “the reader” from the workshop, and to talk only about the story or the book that wants to be written, the book that you as the writer want to write, the book that wants to come out, the book that must come out, and if we can locate that book and trust ourselves to write it then we have to trust that there will be an audience for it.

I don’t like it when writers in a workshop talk about “the reader”. I think it’s a way of not talking about the book they want to write, a way of avoiding looking into themselves, as if the answer is in what the reader wants. And what if we do create an image of the reader, bring that “reader” into consciousness, make that reader explicit, then would it make it easier to write, would it be a way of focusing the voice?

An exercise: Write about who your ideal reader is? Where are they from, what do they like reading, what do they know, what do they want to learn? And then write a story especially for them. Think about what type of reader you are… write about it, write about the type of reader you are… what stories to you love? crave? If you had to be given the ideal book to read, what would it be? Then write it.

It sometimes seems that people talk about the reader in a workshop because they think they’re doing somethingwrong, that if they could just work out what the reader wants then they’d write that very book. I say: what is the book you want to write?

Note to self. To read more about: What motivates people to write, what is the compulsion to tell a story, the desire to be heard. What is the compulsion for story? Does everyone want to tell a story? Does everyone want their story to be heard? Is it a human compulsion to tell a story, to tell our story, to tell one’s story, the story of one’s tribe… And is that compulsion the same no matter what story we tell… some want to tell their story through fiction, some through autobiography.

Be open to the story that can change. The antidote to trauma is letting in another story, a story that is not your own.