Shaun Levin

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

The Voice You Choose Is Not Your Own

In Writing on June 20, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Teaching writing is an opportunity to articulate your understanding of the craft and its aspects: point of view, character, plot. That sort of thing. Recently I said to a student that point of view – or voice, because they are almost the same thing – is the most fundamental aspect of writing fiction. Then I came across a playful but serious piece by Chuck Wendig about character, where he says that character is the be and end all of the undertaking that is the novel. But no matter how interesting or complex or dramatic a character is, the way a story is told, the point of view from which it is told, the voice in which it is told, is what will keep us reading. For us as the writer, being clear about the point of view will keep us focused and clearly positioned in the world of the novel. Point of view will be our shock-proof shit-detector. The clearer we are about the point of view, the better we will be able to see when we slip out of it.

First person, second person, third person, omniscient, whatever you want to call them, none of these POVs are actually monolithic points of view. There is not one type of first person, or one type of omniscient. It’s about a relationship and a distance to the narrative. Where is the voice situated vis-a-vis the story. The point of view is something we create; it doesn’t just happen. Point of view is a decision. Bomberg’s decision to leave his mark on the world through teaching – after he’d become disillusioned with the painting world and his non-acceptance into it – was what gave his voice the authority it had. The strange thing, though, is that he is now known for his paintings, and his writings about art are all but forgotten, ignored. Only a few extracts are published in William Lipke’s book.

It’s hard to explain point of view, because what you’re telling the writer is to step out of themselves, to understand that the voice they are telling the story in is not them. Voice is not just whatever comes out when you put the pen on the page, not just whatever gets put paper. Voice is something you have to feel. It’s a character in itself. It is, like Chuck says in his piece, a skin you put on. The process of writing a novel and working out how to tell the story is a process of forgetting the self, of stepping out of what you know, of disappearing. It can be terrifying and it can be liberating, and I think there are moments early on in the project when we get glimpses of that voice, that slipping out of ourselves, but then we retreat, we step back into the familiar, which is a bit more amorphous.

Writing is about disappearing. Into other characters, other worlds, other voices. And if we’re going to do it well, we have to be prepared for that. And at the end – right at the end of writing the novel – you come out and you don’t really know that you’ve been away, or where you’ve been. It’s like a dreamspace, like being hypnotised. I think men find it harder to grasp what voice is. Women are taught, for example, to read as men. Men (and I probably mean white, Christian, Western, middle class, straight men) often assume that whatever they say is monolithic, correct, that where they are standing is everywhere, as if to stand everywhere were possible.


Writing as Home

In Writing on June 17, 2011 at 11:42 am

Sometimes even twenty minutes is too much. You plan and decide and think it will be manageable, but then you miss a day – life gets in the way, a class to prepare, dinner with a friend who’s in town for one night only, a general overwhelmedness with things – and it gets harder to come back to it, easier to skip another day. There is always the pull towards silence, towards walking away. And it begins to feel like work, something that needs to be avoided, resisted, rebelled against. So what at the start felt like a project that would bring you great pleasure and would (in this case) be a good way to consolidate what you’ve been doing for over fifteen years – all that consolidating became a bit of a chore. You start with a high level of enthusiasm and you do the first days as if they are summer and you are swimming, running on the beach, everything’s flowing and you are convinced, almost, that you can keep going like this every day. But then you can’t. Five days in, a week in, and you’ve run out of things to say, you feel like you’ve said everything there is to say. And you wonder if this is it, if this, after fifteen years of engaging and preparing and running and thinking and doing and whatever, it has come to this. A week of writing and then you are silent. Doubt creeps in, a horrible nagging gagging mean voice that says you have run out, that your time is up, that what you thought would be possible, no longer is.

All writing is like that. There is the beginning of a project and after a short while the work wants you to shift gear, to go deeper, the trajectory of a narrative is always to go deeper and broader. Auto pilot is not an option, not until you are much further into the work, when the work is bigger than you and you can let go into it. Until then, it’s a constant battle between trust and abandonment.

And then you come home. You write and it is like home, the place where you are listened to. The place where the core of you is accepted and loved and necessary. Writing is home, the ideal home, everything we think home ought to be. There is relief when you come back to it. Relief and all the other emotions and dramas that relate to home. Writing is home, a place to rest, a safe place, a place where you are known. Writing is something early, primal, that moment in your life when you realised you could make everything clear and understandable. Writing is a place where you can choose your secrets and your revelations. Writing is a place to hide and be seen. Writing is the spider scrawl on a page, the thread that makes the web, that web you keep longing to be entangled in and held by like a hammock.

Light & Landscape

In Writing on June 13, 2011 at 10:12 am

Writing depends on light. A story depends on light. Each story we write comes out of a certain type of light. Like a painting. A shift in the landscape, in the type of light, and the story changes. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Sometimes we need a different light to see what we’re doing. To shed light. Light, in this case, is, I suppose, a kind of perspective. A couple of years ago I went to Australia to spend a few weeks there, intending to finish my novel about Mark Gertler. The novel, amongst other things, was about the artist’s dying, his TB, his suicide. About a week into my time in the sunshine, on the farm, in the vast open spaces of New South Wales, I realised I couldn’t keep going with that novel, that it would have to wait till I got back to the duller light, the greyness and the built landscape of London. I wrote other things instead. Not necessarily sunny things, but things with open spaces, and things¬† – stories, essays, fragments – that had a deep engagement with nature. For four weeks I lived in a house where the only sounds were birds and wombats and the occasional thud of a kangaroo jumping outside my window. I think we get used to a certain type of landscape, a certain type of light, and it’s that light and those surroundings that we need in order to write. I was going to say: in order to do our best work, but I’m not sure I mean that.

We have our places for thinking and our places for writing, different places, perhaps, for different types of writing. Writing in cafes, writing in the garden, writing in a park, on a train, in an art gallery or in the cinema while waiting for the film to start, in a corner in a pub, drinking, even though we never drink before and while we write (those of us who’ve adopted Hemingway’s rule). And each of those places has an impact on what we say. On the other hand, there are people who are able to be so intensely in the zone, that no matter where they are, no matter what the light or the landscape, they inhabit the fictional world of their novel and nothing can distract them from that. I know that because I have been with writers in places that are so different from the places they usually write in and yet they stick to their project, their novel.

I am easily distracted, and on the whole I like to be distracted. That’s why I probably will never write a proper novel, whatever a proper novel is. My work is made up of fragments, pieced together bursts of writing, of inspiration and struggle and bewilderment and glee, but maybe that’s how proper novels get put together. Order is a myth. Nothing unfolds smoothly. My fascination with painting has something to do with this, the way a painter is confined to and by their canvas. The canvas that is one page. One landscape. Evidence of one type of light. Can one grow tired of the same light, the same landscape? Do we have to be on the move – always looking for the perfect light, the way Bomberg did – in order to keep our subject matter, or technique, our voice alive?

The Subject Matter that Is Your Life

In Writing, Writing Exercises on June 3, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Take stock. Make a list of all the things you have to write about. Keep a little notebook of these subjects, these moments, these memories, these experiences, these people. Make a list of all your cousins, the things you remember doing with them, things people told you about them. Make a list of all the jobs you’ve had, even if it was only for a few hours, that job you walked out of pretty much immediately. The job you’ve had for twenty years. Make a list of your aunts and uncles. All the houses you’ve lived in, the people you’ve lived with. Make a list of everyone you’ve had sex with, even if just for a few minutes, even if just the one. Make a list of all the celebrities you fancy. All the movies you love and would want to see again, and the books. Make a list of all the writers you’d like to be. To meet. To love. Make a list of all the things you know, and the things you know how to do. Realise that you carry around with you a vast resource, a bottomless treasure chest. You never have to worry about not having something to write about. The only thing you need to worry about is the voice that tells you what you should be writing about, and what you should be writing about, it says, is something that has nothing to do with your life. If you want to write fiction, the mean voice says, you have to go as far away as possible from your experience. Nonsense. That is the voice that doesn’t want you to tell the story that means the most to you, the story that will challenge you and offer the most surprises and satisfaction. Make a list of all the windows you’ve looked out of, all the cakes you’ve baked, and eaten, all the strangers you’ve spoken to on a train, even if it’s just one, write about her. All this is your resource for fiction, too. Write about yourself, write about what you know, write to discover what you don’t know in the things you think you know. Don’t ignore the subject matter that is your life.

Fiction is make-believe, it’s pretending, it’s inventing characters and situations. Make a list of the places you’d like to go to. Research them and write about them as if you’ve been there. Make a list of the experiences you’ve never had and pick the ones that intrigue you, the ones you hope you’ll never have and the ones that you want to have and research them, interview people who’ve had them, then write about them as if they’re yours. Write about torture and intimate contentment and walking barefoot for miles and crossing oceans on sea-liners and surviving a war and famine and tea at the Ritz. You don’t have to go there to know there, though you will have to find a place in you that has been there, that has experienced something that is an echo of the experience you want to write about, no matter how much it might seem alien to your world. And that, too, is part of the soul work.