Shaun Levin

Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

Getting Away from the Barking

In Writing on January 5, 2012 at 10:35 am

The old voice that keeps barking on in your head: THE NOVEL! THE NOVEL! so persistent and doglike that you have to shut your mind to it, close the door and walk away. That’s what it’s like sometimes. Another voice will tell you to ignore the barking and keep writing; all that matters is the novel, the novel. Like three notes on the piano, thumb, index finger, middle finger, like the beginning of what in our house was called “Chopsticks” but isn’t, a tune that went: THE NO-VEL, tum tum, THE NO-VEL, tum tum. And on it goes, that easy tune. If only the novel worked like that.

And then, if you manage to walk away from the barking, something else might appear, maybe a story or a short essay, or just another idea to explore and like a dog you want to follow that scent, to scratch for the bone, to keep digging and digging until you have found it. Ugh, I can feel I’m going to be mixing my metaphors all over the place in this one. But yesterday it happened to me, the scent of something different, unrelated to the novel, tum tum, and I spent a good chunk of the day writing about it, exploring it. I even did a little plan and followed it. It was just a short essay about my year of poetry, when in 2007 I decided to explore what writing poems was all about and I went to classes and wrote poems and hung out with more poets. I wrote about that and it was delicious.

It was a bit like coming out of hibernation and being hungry for something and everything I came across was yum. Wild berries, baby seals, you name it. Everything fell into place, like the piece, the essay, the story was just waiting to be written. It didn’t come totally unbidden, out of nowhere. I’d come across a short piece in Evening Will Come, an online journal of poetics, and so I read a few more of the short essays and loved what I read and wanted to write something, too. I wanted to write for them even if they didn’t know I was doing that, even if they didn’t want what I wrote. This is what I’ve been thinking about, this writing for someone else, only it feels much less stressful when the other “person” doesn’t know that you’re doing it for them. Isn’t that what all love letters are about?! And even if they don’t want it – because, really, at the end of the day, they don’t matter – there will be a piece completed and you will have written something, whole.

You have created a gift, and in creating that gift you have created a gift for yourself, the process of creating the gift is a gift in itself, the time you give to yourself, the moments of stillness and complete absorption in your own pleasure of remembering and inventing. You forget everything, forgive everything. You forget who it’s for because it isn’t really for anyone except yourself, for your own delight. You stop being self-conscious. You stop analysing and criticising and doubting. As Lewis Hyde says in The Gift:

To count, mea­sure, reckon value, or seek the cause of a thing, is to step out­side the cir­cle, to cease being ‘all of a piece’ with the flow of gifts and become, instead, one part of the whole reflect­ing on another part.

And when you are done, the gift is sweet. It is something made in innocence and honesty and vulnerability. You have been open to the story, the essay, the poem. And you are ready to pass it on.

I’ve probably been thinking about barking because I received a birthday package from my brother in the mail with some Peppermint Bark (a first, for me) in it. It definitely quietens THE NOVEL, THE NOVEL noises!


The Path of Unknowing

In Writing, Writing Workshops on January 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Sometimes someone says something you’ve instinctively known is true but have never managed to put into one sentence. While reading an interview with Andrew Sean Greer, I came across him saying that writing is about not knowing and being with someone who is not knowing

I just don’t think you should say anything to a novelist except to keep going, because they don’t know what they are doing so you can’t know what they are doing. They are really just finding their way in the dark.

that more or less summed up what I feel about teaching writing and the frustration I think we all feel, teachers of writing and workshop participants, if we start to think that one of us should know. I have always said in workshops that the process of writing is about bearing the chaos, about living in the not knowing, and trusting that at some point you will know what the novel is about and you will know why you have written it.

When I set out to write the biographical novel based on the life of the artist mark Gertler, I thought my reasons were about being a Jewish artist in the diaspora, and in England in particular, and also that the project was a conversation with the dead, more specifically, my father, and the ancestors in general, perhaps. But what it turned out to be, amongst many other reasons, was also a meditation on suicide and the importance of love in the creative process. This was true for Gertler, but it is also true for me. At the root of it all is the question: How do you want to live your life? And, how much control do you have over the implementation of that decision?

Why I want to write a biographical novel based on David Bomberg’s life is, on some level, a mystery still. I know that it will be about teaching and landscape, but I suspect it’ll be about other things, too.

One of the thing I do as a teacher of writing is to accompany others on this journey of unknowing, and share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Is it my job to try and stop people from making mistakes? Not sure. Is it my job to claim I know and that one thing is wrong and the other thing is right? The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who created a space to explore and experiment and just get on with it, because, really, the bulk of the work we do is outside the workshop space.

I think often people come to workshop hoping to be told, that there will be someone there who knows and they will tell them what they know so that they, too, will know. But no one knows. All we know is what others have done before us and so we can say, oh, x did this, maybe you can look at this. Oh, what you’re trying to do is similar to what y did with his novel, see if that works for you. And those who came before us didn’t know either, but they left something behind of their exploration and struggle to know, and we can look at that.

In her A Letter to a Young Poet, Virginia Woolf writes, in her attempt to address the question of knowing, of putting oneself into a box, a genre, of thinking that one knows what one is doing and what one is:

…once you begin to take yourself seriously as a leader or as a follower, as a modern or as a conservative, then you become a self-conscious, biting, and scratching little animal whose work is not of the slighest value or importance to anybody. Think of yourself rather as something much humbler and less spectacular, but to my mind far more interesting – a poet in whom live all the poets of the past, from whom all poets in time to come will spring…

and again, you come across something that someone says and you are relieved that someone has put into words, in a much better way, what you know, and has saved you a bit of the journey, so that now you can keep on going along the path of unknowing.

Honesty, Bravery, Ecstasy

In Writing on January 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm

What does the new year mean? New yearz meanz rezolutionz. I don’t like resolutions; they make me want to break them. I hate being told what to do, even if it’s me doing the telling. In some ways this blog has been a failure. I set out to write twenty minutes a day and for a short while I did and because things were going well I felt like it was okay to share what I was doing with others. But then… as soon as I knew people were watching, I stopped. I became self-conscious. I tried to remain honest to what I was thinking and to what I was feeling about writing and writing workshops and the writing life, but it just wasn’t the same. This is not about the precariousness of any writing project, because I know that already. I know that on some level when you show your writing to others during the process you are sacrificing something. The end product can never be the same as the book or story you would have written alone in your room without an audience or even thoughts of an audience.

What this is about, for me, is how difficult I find it to write honestly when I know someone is going to read it. The blog showed me this, but also the four essays I was recently commissioned to write. I was happy with the outcome, but they would have been completely different things if I had taken my time with them, if I had let them come into being at their own pace. I also felt that I was writing for someone, rather than completely for myself, and that changed the writing. Now, as I write this, I think, well, perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. I did get four essays done in as many months. Those essays would “naturally” and “organically” have taken a couple of years to write, and probably one or two of them – admit it, maybe even all – would have been abandoned, or left unfinished until, as they say, my dying day.

The only time I ever finished a book in a short time was when I was part of a professional supervision group, when I committed to finishing it within a certain timeframe, and agreed on a reward from the group. They were waiting for me to complete the project. I believe they cared. I wanted to finish it. They wanted me to finish it. So I did.

The challenge for me in 2012 will be to write honestly even while being watched, even if it’s only one or two people, because really, those people are just the “people” in my head, the voices that criticise and yawn and wag their fingers and raise their eyebrows and roll their eyeballs, and all the various things parents, teachers, peers and strangers do to others – okay, to me, yes, to me – when we show them the things we are most proud of, when we say the things we like to say, when we behave in ways that feel good and authentic and joyful.

I want to make 2012 a year of honesty, a year of a joyful approach to writing. And because I like things in threes… that’s 1) honesty, 2) joy, and 3) let number three be courage.