Shaun Levin

Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Writing Is Dancing

In Writing, Writing Workshops on August 21, 2011 at 10:19 am

There is a natural progression from writing to painting to dancing. Watch the hands move as you write or type and then make the gestures more expansive, make the space you fill bigger, move your hands in the air, pick up a brush, paint, but keep moving your hands, move your body, move your feet and you’re dancing. Sometimes I think that it’s that dancing energy, that fluid movement in the world, the longing to fly, that we try and distill back into our writing, that somehow writing is a distillation of movement in the world, that to writing is the opposite of… I almost said life, and maybe that’s what I should have said.

To write is to stop. To stop moving in the world, to stop interacting, to stop, even, procrastinating, putting off the writing itself, and yes, a lot of energy goes into that, a lot of writing time, or what could be writing time, goes into avoiding writing. Writing is a screeching to a halt; most of the frantic and frenetic movement happens in our head. Sometimes, of course, it is not like that and writing is a relief and an oasis and a good place to go to, even daily, because there are periods in my life – I say periods, but it’s more like a few days; if I’m lucky, weeks – when I turn up to write every day, when it is part of a daily movement, when “Writing” doesn’t feel like a chasm or an unearned luxury or the most terrifying thing to do.

Sometimes we have to live and not write. Some of us are better at writing than living. So when there is not much writing happening, it feels like the whole of life is meaningless, disrupted, fragile. Of course, the only cure for this is to write. Sometimes a workshop helps. I went to a workshop recently and I relished the time we had to write and I smiled to myself when things that I liked came out, whole sentences that I knew I’d be able to use in The Book.

It was a dancing and writing workshop. We danced for a bit, then wrote for a bit, then took a break, and when we came back, we did the same again. I didn’t love the dancing bits. They felt too prescriptive, too much like hard work, but it also made me think how some of the stuff we were doing was, for other people there, quite basic. I don’t follow instructions well, and there were a lot of instructions about breathing and this foot and that foot and left and right. However, when we got to the writing, I was so desperate to write, gagging to write, that my pen didn’t want to stop moving on the page. What a relief to be writing again, what a relief to be able to dance the way I know how, or at least in a way I feel comfortable. To dance on the page, to move around, to be silly, playful, to fly, to pirouette. Writing is where we can do everything and anything, be anything, be everything.

I think life can give us a hunger for writing. The fuller our lives the hungrier we are to write, the more we have to bring to the page. I’m not sure if that’s true. It sounds like it could be. Just having a relationship, any relationship, is enough to feel one’s life is full. I think reading can provide that… a good book is worthy, healthy company. A good book makes us want to go off and write. A good book makes us feel that we, too, can dance on the page. A good book is like a good writing instruction, a good prompt… it gives us instructions without saying anything… instructions by osmosis. At the moment I am reading Dany Laferriere’s Why Must a Black Writer Write about Sex?


Light and Night

In Writing on August 9, 2011 at 1:22 pm

This was written on Saturday, just before the London riots began, before the nights brought stories of their own.

Writers need the dark and painters need light. Or: Name a painter who worked at night. Painters need light to see; writers seem to need the night for that. Light is not an inspiration for writers, not on the whole. Bomberg went in search of light. Wherever he went it was to find the perfect light to paint in… whether to the Cairngorms, to Cornwall, to Palestine for a few years, to Ronda on and off until eventually he settled there. If anything, he was a painter who needed light.

I am grateful for the night. The time when everyone is sleeping, when nothing can interrupt a train of thought, when you don’t have to come up with techniques to block out sounds and expectations and distractions. You can own the night. And maybe this is connected to the dreamspace, to touching the subconscious. The further you go into the night, the more chance you have of bringing something back from the underworld. Gifts. Magic. Answers.

Have you ever seen a writer standing in the middle of a wheat field with a notebook in hand?

Stories happen at night. Around a fire. Candles burning. Daytime is for productivity. I write mainly during the day. Mainly in the morning, just on the other side of the dreamspace. The novel needs productivity, perhaps. Needs the light. But it’s more about the light of the subconscious, the light of continuity… because when painters work on a specific painting, a landscape in particular, they need the light itself to be consistent, yet the undertaking of a novel, even a short story, cannot rely on the same light for months or years on end. But maybe it does. And that light is not a physical light. It’s more about faith. The light of believing in a project.

Nightime feels infinite, because in the end you will eventually go to sleep. With the day there is lunchtime, there is a phone that will ring, a postman who will knock. But with the night you will be eased into the dreamspace, which is infinite. Writing is a retreat from the world, and that is easier to do at night. No one expects you to be available at night. And yet a painter at work during the day is clearly doing something… it is easier to leave a painter alone. A writer at a desk does not seem as occupied as a painter in a wheat-field. Don’t disturb the painter until the light begins to fade.

The light at night is more reliable, more consistent than the light during the day.

Time and Napping

In Writing on August 8, 2011 at 11:02 am

Napping keeps you close to the dream world. That space of almost disappearing. The going in and out of the subconscious, then waking into consciousness and you carry fragments up with you, images of yourself doing things you’d never have imagined in waking time, like dancing with someone much bigger than you, but still you dance like those ice skaters who throw each other into the air and land back down, gracefully, catching each other even, and then they keep skating along, like ballet dancers. It’s a space almost impossible to write about because everything happens at once, quicker than it takes for words to describe. I often hear writers say that the reason they write on the computer and not by hand is that when they write by hand they can’t keep up with their thoughts. Do we need to keep up with our thoughts? Can we ever keep up with the simultaneous goings on in our brains?

But that’s not what I want to think about. I’m thinking about that dreamspace, the napping space, the dipping in and out of the subconscious just to see what’s there, just to get glimpses of the pictures and dramas and moments it can create, what it has to offer.  In our waking hours we get so little opportunity to visit that space, especially if we’re always doing things, always busy, working, shopping, relating. That dreamspace is so completely ours. It’s a space we want to get to in our writing, those moments that happen in our writing when we are amazed at how something appeared to us in a story we’re working on. As in: where did that come from? Like when a character does something unexpected, when a metaphor appears to us so perfectly and precisely formed. Those moments in writing when we lose control, when we, that person we know who functions in the world, no longer exists, we have disappeared and words appear on the page despite that, no because of that.

Time to nap is a gift and time to write is a gift. Only when we’re finished with the hunting and gathering can we write. And nap. I want to look up in Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift to see what he says about hunting and gathering and gift giving. Are artists the only ones who structure their world so that it includes the gift of time and napping? Or does the compulsion to create make us find ways to map out a life that facilitates, that enables napping and time to write?

Napping is both escape and fuel. Although I don’t think “fuel” is quite the right word. Fortitude, perhaps is better. Writing is retreat and strength. Going away makes being here possible, more bearable. And being here is food for those moments, those stolen minutes and hours when we disappear from sight in order to write. Hoping in those hours to disappear even from ourselves into what we are creating.

PS. Just a quick look at the chapter “The Commerce of the Creative Spirit” in Hyde’s The Gift offers up these, eh, gifts:

An essential portion of any artist’s labor is not creation so much as invocation.  Part of the work cannot be made, it must be received; and we cannot have this gift except, perhaps, by supplication, by courting, by creating within ourselves that “begging bowl” to which the gift is drawn.

and later:

Just as treating nature’s bounty as a gift ensures the fertility of nature, so to treat the products of the imagination as gifts ensures the fertility of the imagination.


In Writing, Writing Workshops on August 1, 2011 at 9:25 pm

I love the silence of a writing workshop. People around a table writing together, everyone focused on their own page, the movement of the pen across a blank page, slowly filling it. The occasional quiet whistling of nose hairs, the scurrying of the nib across the page, tapping the i, again and again, especially with words like biking and inimitable and invisibility, the tick tick, or the tick tick tick. The pausing to think, the surprise of a word or thought that is unexpected.

Go somewhere quiet.

Somewhere where there is no noise. Somewhere where nothing can disrupt a thought except thoughts themselves. Somewhere where it is just you and the landscape. And the more you write when you are there the further you will go from thought, deeper, until there is just story, pure telling. For a few weeks when I was in the middle of nowhere in New South Wales, Australia, somewhere outside of Nowra, at the end of a nine kilometre dirt-road, I had days of complete silence. Even an hour a day was enough. I think that’s where painters go to paint landscapes, what they search out, that place that takes them somewhere inside, a place in them that is reached when they are in the landscape and all there is is you and what is around you. The past doesn’t matter, and narrative doesn’t matter, and all you want to do is put the trees onto the page, and the cows, and the sky, and the wombat that’s ripping at the grass with its teeth, the kangaroos that come down from the hills to graze at dawn and at dusk. And the light that is changing. And the river that snakes its way through everything.

Here in the city the noise is constant. The whirring of the extractor fans from the pub, the jabber of the whatever it is that comes out of the door of the William Hill betting shop across the road, scores and races and football matches, and the drilling that started this morning – again – because whoever it is who digs up roads is digging up this road for the second time in the past couple of months, and the traffic, although somehow traffic doesn’t disturb, it is the necessary sound of the city, almost a natural sound, like water, or passing comets.

The Rule of Two, Part I

In Writing on August 1, 2011 at 10:24 am

Take six random books. For example, in a recent workshop we read six novels and collections of short stories. Sweetness by Torgny Lindgren, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, Drown by Junot Diaz, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Alessandro Baricco’s Silk, and a collection of short creative non-fiction pieces called Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks by Greg Bottoms. They are all books I love, and it was a joy to share them with others and engage with the books as a group of writers.

Looking back at all six books I started to think about what they all had in common, to ask myself if there were certain threads that ran through all six, and if through all six, then maybe through all good books. All six books were concerned with memory, with the reliability of memory, and the telling of what has happened in the past and its bearing on the present. All six deal with the relationship between then and now, between there are here, between the way one/a character is now in relation to how they were then. Silk may not be so strongly about these themes, but all the other five very much are.

So I started to wonder if there is a rule of two in storytelling. Two time frames, two places, two versions of the I or the character/protagonist (I don’t like that word “protagonist” – it’s too academic, it doesn’t sound like a word with flesh and blood)… and is every narrative an attempt to reconcile the two, the two geographies, the two versions of the self, all in the face of the passing of time and the conflicting retellings that happen over time and that come about because of different points of view. We are not the only tellers of our own story.

Is the story always, at any point in the telling, only about two people, and if there is a third, then the third is observing. Is this about conflict? Can drama only happen when there is a rubbing together of two… two people, but also two time frames, two places, two versions of the self. Rub two together and the sparks begin to fly. Does this mean we are never alone? There is always memory, there is always a plan. What of stillness? What of emptying the mind? Is there story in that place? Those moments when we are alone in nature, meditating, and we are – just say it – at one with everything. is it only then that there is no two? Is every story the movement between two states of being? Is this a question that’s even relevant to fiction?

The Rule of Two, to be continued.