Shaun Levin

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.

  1. As a participant in many of the workshops that you have led, I have to say that your practice of sharing what you’ve discovered has led to many fresh ideas and the inciting of new perspectives. You are an opener of doors.

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