Shaun Levin

Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page


In Writing, Writing Exercises on May 27, 2011 at 10:40 am

It’s important to have friends to whom you can talk about writing, with whom writing-talk is part of the ebb and flow of all conversations. One friend is enough. One friend with whom it feels natural and right to talk about writing. And I don’t mean someone who you can moan with about how you’re blocked or can’t write or whatever (though this is important, too), but really a friend with whom you can talk about a story, or your characters in a novel, or an issue you’re having with one of your chapters and the friend wants you to go into detail. They will listen and talk to you about your characters as if they were your own family. This friend will know that these characters are as important to us as your own family.

A friend to write with is also a good thing. A friend with whom you meet up and sit down and spend twenty or thirty minutes writing and then read to each other. Sometimes the prompt to writing can be something you’ve been talking about or you can read to each other or you can look through books of writing exercises for an exercise to follow. Sometimes, too, just being together with that friend is prompt enough to start writing. That moment of stillness when you say that it’s time to write and you turn to your notebook and bow your head to the page and follow the movement of your pen.

It is also good to have a writer-friend to talk to whose issues with writing are interesting to you, whose thoughts about writing engage you and challenge you and excite you. You want a writer-friend who’s going to stretch you, who will introduce you to new writers, who’ll make you think about your own writing, a writer-friend who is both a companion and a guide. And the conversation with them will not be just about writing, but about relationships, too, and theatre, and their other friends, and your friends, and families, and food, and lovers, everything that feeds your writing and that strengthens a friendship and trust, because to talk about writing one needs to trust. It is not possible to talk to a person about writing if you don’t trust them. All of us have tried that, and sometimes we get burnt. Talking to just anyone about writing can be dangerous for the muse, even detrimental. New lovers are the wrong people to talk to about writing. And family, they often are the wrong people to talk to, although if you have a psychologist in the family (which I do), they can be a good person to have around. They will be a good person to talk to about your characters. Often they will ask good questions, they will treat your characters like the human beings they are.

Just because someone is a friend doesn’t mean you should talk to them about writing. Not many people understand the need to sit alone in a room with your imaginary companions. A writer-lover can be a good thing. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne used to read to each other at the end of each day.

There was nothing I did not discuss with John.

Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.

I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way “competitive”, that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.

from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking


The Kind of Writer

In Writing on May 17, 2011 at 9:17 am

At some point you decide what kind of writer you want to be, and by that I mean how you want to live as a writer. Not necessarily what you want to write, but rather how you want to be in the world, how you want to be seen as a writer. Will you be the reclusive type, or the one who enjoys the attention, seeks out interviews, writes for different periodicals, comments on people’s blogs, writes letters to the editor? To what degree will you be out there? Will you be the kind of writer who initiates things? Do you see yourself as part of a community of peers, or are your peers all the great dead writers you admire? Are you the kind of writer who writes in the morning and then gets drunk in the afternoon, parties at night, but still manages to wake up at 8am and be at your desk by 9? Do you write late at night? Do you share your work with others before you publish, or do you grapple with the work on your own until you are pleased with it, or at least pleased enough to let it out into the world. Are you the kind of writer who editors like working with, or don’t you care about being liked? Do you make sure your work is published exactly how you want it to appear? Are you the kind of writer who has a partner who is also a writer and you read to each other at the end of every day? Do you prefer to live alone and put your energy into your work? Is your commitment to your work? To love? To family? To politics? Do you believe a writer has to commit to one thing, one project? Are you a generous writer? Do you like nurturing and engaging with others? Are you envious of other writers’ successes? Do you revel in your own? Do you read reviews of your work?

Every choice has its consequences, its pros and cons.

The kind of writer we are is not a constant, although the kernel of the writer we will become – and by that I probably mean the kind of writer we’ll be remembered as (if we are remembered at all) – is there from the start. Will you write fiction or autobiography or both, or will you be the kind of writer who isn’t interested in genre distinctions? Will you be the kind of writer who likes working with other writers but is also reclusive, and you move between the two poles – are they poles? – and get to a point where you don’t worry too much what people think. Are you the kind of writer who repeats herself?

Life often dictates, or does it always dictate the kind of writer you will be. I have had a chronic illness for the past twenty-five years, a condition that forces me to stay indoors for the first 4 or 5 hours of the day. I am – maybe because of that – a writer who writes (mostly) in the mornings. I say to people that I am not available for the first half of the day. I don’t always like leaving the house or travelling too far on a daily basis, so I have tried to fashion a writerly life that accommodates this. Being out in the world is an adventure. It’s a precarious place, and people are endlessly fascinating to me. I am a deeply social person and also a recovering victim of bullying and homophobia, so I am cautious. I am a skilled people watcher and also mistrustful of people. Most of the time, all this is enough to go on. Just being outside is material enough for a story, so I tend to use a lot of my own experience in my work. As a fairly anxious person who often thinks “What if…” I am constantly being provided with fictional scenarios. What if the driver had knocked me over… What if that gang of kids had beaten me up… What if I’d gone back… What if we’d gone on a second date… And on and on. My fiction, too, is often a result of the questioning that comes out of my personal experience. I am the kind of writer who engages with the world with great wonder, who sees everything as potential story, who likes to push my boundaries every now and again, try new things, new ways of writing, of working. I am the kind fo writer who likes cafes and park benches.

Integrity and Trust

In Writing, Writing Workshops on May 10, 2011 at 10:24 am

I like to write at home. I can go for days – maybe three – without talking to anyone, just immersing myself in the world of what I’m writing. I do go out. I go to the gym, to the supermarket, to the greasy spoon down the road for a cheese omelette and chips. But I don’t speak much to people. I like being around people without having to talk to them, and when I do talk, I like the exchange to be light. “I like your coat,” I said to the woman next to me the other night at the Barbican. That was enough. She said thank you. I’m glad we didn’t talk more, because then I might have heard that she liked the play, which I thought was homophobic, unforgivably so, but the audience seemed to find it all quite amusing.

I like to feel immersed in the work I’m doing and if I’m feeling angry about something, I want to bring that anger to the novel, to the page, to my notebooks. I want that anger to be mine for a while. I don’t want to dilute it with conversation. Writing is an expression of the things we hold onto, the things that won’t let us go. The danger is that we keep repeating a story, compulsively repeating a narrative that clings to us, probably because of trauma. I’m not just talking about autobiographical writing, or at least not only of it. Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating the same story, from story to story… Sometimes I feel that from story to story I’m repeating the same story. That’s why I think therapy is a great thing for a writer.

If a writer wants to change and grow, really wants to evolve, then their writing will keep evolving. I think there is often the fear that if one goes into therapy there’ll be nothing left to write about, as if all that writing is is a sublimation of unresolved issues, the acting out of repressed dramas – because really that is what writing is about – as if all those things were finite, as if it were possible to get to the bottom of one’s self. It isn’t. But it is possible to get stuck on one narrative.

At some point I want to say more on why I don’t like English writers. This is a culture that uses language as a thing to hide behind, not as a tool to express one’s honesty, to try and put into words what one is feeling. There are very few English writers whom I read, if any. English writers use language to entertain, to humour, to mock, to show off. They use language to be fake. There is no attempt to be honest. In the years that I edited Chroma magazine I came across voices that were using language in an honest way, raw and brutal and lyrical. The way American writers do, and French writers. What drives them is integrity.

How do you teach integrity? How do you encourage people to be open and honest and vulnerable in a workshop? Sometimes I think it would be easier if people read my work before they came to a workshop, so that they could see that I am trying to do just that in my own work, to be vulnerable and honest, and yet still give a sense that I have control over what I do, that there is aesthetic judgement going on, that the work has been crafted. But most people don’t read the work of their teachers when they come to a workshop, at least not if the person isn’t a mainstream writer with a novel on the bestseller list. I don’t think people realise what kind of damage a writing teacher can do to one’s desire to write, or to the faith, however fragile, one has in one’s own work. And yet people are willing to trust their writing to people they know nothing about.

Plotting and Letting Go

In Writing, Writing Exercises on May 6, 2011 at 8:24 pm

How do we learn to follow a story, to follow a trail, to follow a scent? We can map and plan and plot, but we have to learn to let go. To plan. And then let go. Flex. Release. (Real ease.) Flex. Release. And again. Draw a map of all your character’s friends (or your own friends from a specific time in your life). Notice the different types of friends they have. Is there a certain type of friend that might be missing? A friend who gives good advice (even if they don’t listen to it)? A friend who irritates them? A friend who was a lover? A story needs a range of types, a diversity of types, even if they’re just small roles. A cameo is often enough. It’s important to bring the unexpected into your story, the character that even you weren’t planning to put there. Make the story a challenge for yourself, too. Make the story something you don’t quite know how to deal with, don’t quite know how it will pan out. But keep planning. Then releasing yourself into it. Planning, then releasing.

Draw maps of your story. Orient yourself in it, then let go. If you see an alleyway that you fancy, go down it, because once you know the lay of the land around you, you know where you have to come back to, you know in which direction the main thoroughfare is and at some point soon you’ll be back on it. How many of these sidestreets should you follow, and if there’s a flight of stairs going down, leading to something – a bar? A drinking den? a secret something or other – should you follow that? And what if there’s some big fight going on down there, or a late-night jazz jam session? Should you follow that? Follow it and see where it takes you and it might or might not be a dead end, but if the entrance appears to you, it’s your job to follow it and see what happens. You can always get back onto the main thoroughfare. And maybe there’s a stairway going up, too, and you can get onto the roof and see what the world of your story looks like from that perspective. That view might be important to your story.

Write and write and write, then take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Accept guidance or an outsider’s eye, listen to ways of opening up your story. There might be doors and alleyways you haven’t noticed – doors that are often staring at us, a sentence that wants to keep going, an emotion that wants to be explored, a view that wants to be seen in greater details. How do we learn to open those places up, to open the story. It’s about following the story. Often the clues are there before us in the story and we don’t trust ourselves, or are too controlling, too committed to the belief that we must be in command of the story, that the story goes where we tell it to go. Trust your intuition, follow the tangent; often, that’s where the treasure lies. When there’s something you actively don’t want to write about, or resist writing about, that’s the thing that you need to write, maybe not for itself, but for what’s hiding behind it.

The Writing Jam

In Writing on May 3, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Reading offers us possibilities. Reading reminds us that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel, that there are ways of doing things that are out there for us to imitate. A child cannot learn to talk without being spoken to, without hearing other voices. Those voices are essential to the formation and sound of their voice. No two individuals are exposed to the exact same voices and therefore no two voices are the same, even if two people were brought up from the same moment hearing the same voices they would not be the same because they are hearing each other’s voice, too. Read as much and as varied as you can, as diversely as you can, which is the equivalent of saying travel, make diverse friends, don’t worry if you don’t always understand what people are saying, don’t worry if it doesn’t feel like you’re taking anything in. Read frivolous stuff, too, and novels that sweep you up and carry you effortlessly through 200 pages, and those that make you work from line one. Become obsessed with writers, read everything they’ve ever written, one book after the next, interviews, stories, articles, whatever you can get your hands on, or find online, fill yourself with them, their story plots, their sentences, their ways of saying things.

The sentence. It all boils down to the sentence. Things to do with a sentence. To craft it. Things to do with a sentence. Like colour. Where to put it on the page. Change the words round. Some long sentences, some short. Use variety. Notice what your sentences look like on the page, and your paragraphs, and page by page. Always ask yourself: is there variety? Maybe this has something to do with rhythm and music… what could one take from music, to write and sing, to write without thinking, like improvising, jamming – how does one do that with writing? – because music often involves more than one person… what would be the equivalent in writing? How do you write together, make a piece of writing together… is that what theatre and the movies are about, writing a piece for more than one voice? But how to do that on the page. The jamming sessions. The jamming sessions.

There’s more to say about this, I’m sure.