Shaun Levin

Archive for July, 2011|Monthly archive page

Generosity (and Fishing)

In Writing, Writing Workshops on July 12, 2011 at 10:02 am

Writing is a gesture of generosity, a giving of yourself. The best stories are like shrapnel from the writer’s soul, synecdoches of their being. To write well is to rend yourself open. To paint well, too. To do anything well is to give of yourself. The more you refuse to share of yourself the thinner your prose will be, the shallower. There should be nothing that you would not write about, nothing of yourself that you would not explore. Of course, “should” is a blaming word. Of course, we can never share everything. Aim to avoid nothing. Don’t behave yourself.

(I think that was one of Bomberg‘s downfalls… he did not behave himself. He valued integrity in a country that does not value integrity. He was operating in a culture that has perfected, over centuries, ways to hide integrity, to hide it, conceal it, mask it. The way Bomberg worked and thought and behaved was messy. This country does not appreciate messy, the messiness of the soul, the imagination, the internal workings of the psyche.)

How do you encourage writers in a workshop to be generous? To not be afraid. Especially when there are days – you know there are days like this – when all you want to do is shut down. You want to shut down especially when you know what you have to write about, a story that is about both pain and a wonderful freedom (to be precise: Fishing with your father), but there is something about the fact of an audience that paralyses you. As if the thought of an audience no longer makes the writing your own, no longer makes it private. I need to trick myself into believing that what I’m writing is private, that it’s just for me. Speaking of fishing… it’s a bit like the difference between that time when you’re sitting on the boat or standing on the shore with your line in the water and you’re waiting, those glorious moments of anticipation and your mind wonders off, but somehow that line in the water connects you to the world, to the deep waters, to the inner parts of yourself, to your true wishes. And then the fish bites and you let it run with the line a bit and then the fight to reel it in begins and you are no longer in your own head, it’s just you and the fish, a battle with a creature who wants freedom, and that exhilaration and fight and dread are all transmitted to you through the line and you and the fish are together… maybe not “as one”, but definitely connected.

The creative time comes before the bite. You can’t create and fight the fish at the same time. The fish at the end of the line is an intrusion into the writing process. Writing is the waiting time.

In a workshop you want to create a space where everyone can forget about the audience, forget about the fight with the fish, but know that the fish is there, know that the standing there with the line – the fishing line and the line of the page, the squiggly lines our pens make across the page – is for a reason, and there will be a fish and we will have something to eat and something substantial will be created.


Writing the Tribe

In Writing, Writing Workshops on July 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

What happens when you write outside your tribe? No, what I want to ask is, why write outside your tribe, outside of your people, your landscapes, the parts of the world you are familiar with? A Jew writes about a Buddhist monk. No, it’s more simple than that. A Jewish writer writes about a Christian businesswoman, a Muslim skateboarder. No, it’s more simple than that. A Jewish writer writes about a Christian writer. Why? Is that writer’s motivation a desire to stretch the imagination, to see where their imagination will go if they try to put themself in the shoes of someone slightly different, or seemingly slightly different.

This question rose out of an incident recently in a workshop where a Nigerian male writer (I have created a fictional workshop participant to ensure confidentiality) read out a story about a white middle class woman, a mother, an actress. He is none of these things and neither is his girlfriend. The story was okay, but I knew that if he’d made the story’s protagonist a Nigerian woman, that something much more interesting and complex would have happened. Even if she, like in the original version, was called Jennifer. I wasn’t sure what to say to him about these thoughts, so I didn’t say anything. I focused on other elements of the story. But the question has nagged at me. There was the issue of what he thought were legitimate topics for stories. I had a feeling, though I might be wrong, that he didn’t feel it was valid to make his characters, or even just one of them, someone who was deeply familiar to him. The gender question was also there in the mix.

This isn’t just a question about race. I feel like it’s a question more about the range of topics we assume are available to us, that are legitimate. I don’t know if he wanted to write about Nigerian characters, but hadn’t read enough literature by Nigerian writers, come across enough stories with Nigerian characters in them, to realise his choice would have been valid. His decision might also be linked to the fact that he was one of only two people of colour in the class, and to write about characters so close to him would have felt too intimate a thing to share.

And it’s not a question about whether writers with difference – Jewish writers, writers of African descent, Asian writers, queer writers, blind or deaf writers – should only write about characters from their worlds. It is, though, a question of distance, and a question of connectedness, and a question of depth. How deep can we go into a character that is fundamentally different from us. But then, writing is also about pretending. Don’t we have the capacity to go anywhere with it? Aren’t we – now I risk sounding like a liberal – all in this world together?

Which reminded me of this…