Shaun Levin

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.”


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