Shaun Levin

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.

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