Shaun Levin

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!

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