Shaun Levin

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.


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