Shaun Levin

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?


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