Shaun Levin

Archive for April, 2012|Monthly archive page

Horizons: Indoor and Outdoor Stories

In Writing on April 29, 2012 at 10:25 am

For the first two thirds of my life I lived by the sea. I grew up with horizons, and now as I’m preparing for a new workshop and course I’m about to run over the next few months, it’s got me thinking about the impact of place on the imagination, my own, a character’s, and in general the place of place in fiction and non-fiction. I like an horizon, and for a large part of those years in which I lived by the sea, I could see the horizon from my window.

For the past seven years I have lived in a flat in London that looks out onto a sort of horizon. And by horizon I mean a lot of sky and the ability to see into the distance, to the point where it feels like the sky meets the earth. I remember a friend who was into astrology said something once about horizons and Sagittarians. I like being a Sagittarian. It sometimes feels like a stroke of luck, like being born with some talent! I like that Lucian Freud is a Sagittarian, and that the three painters I’ve been writing about (more or less since I moved into this flat with an horizon), are also Sagittarians. My friend said that we are people focused on horizons, that we reach for one, get it, and then look for the next one. Like we always need an horizon in sight, always need to strive, reach, or almost reach, because you can never really reach the horizon, and then we aim for the next one. Maybe that’s why I prefer to write short stories, or maybe not prefer, but do. Maybe that’s why I do write short stories, those creations of manageable horizons (or do I mean boundaries). My characters never want grand things. As Kurt Vonnegut says: every character has to want something, even if it’s just a glass of water. Although maybe my characters pursue love as if it was water. And they were in the desert.

I spent quite a bit of time in the desert in the 1980s. Not a huge amount of time; probably about six months, day after day of rust-red horizons, burning sand, an horizon that if you stood still long enough would blow towards you and bury you.

Thinking about place, I think about outdoor stories and indoor stories. A quick run through of some of my stories in my head and I realise that even when the stories don’t happen at home, they happen inside a room, a lover’s room, a café, a bar, a kitchen. Some happen in parks. A couple on the beach. And suddenly that bit of advice I once got from the poet Ann Stephenson about my work: too much sex, she said, and not enough geography. And sex is, on the whole, an indoor story. But I know that what she meant by “geography” was really a sense of place rather than the great outdoors. I have always loved writing description, but I think she shocked me into loving it even more.

The question is, how often do stories happen outside enclosed spaces. Outside the confines of a room, a car, a cabin on a cruise liner, a hut in the woods? Even of the story is outside, isn’t it more often than not happening between four walls? I’m excited about exploring this questions, looking for stories that are completely in the outdoors, in a forest, on a raft, in places where there is nowhere to retreat to, at least not for the duration of the telling.

Leaving the Ordinary Behind

In Writing on April 22, 2012 at 6:15 pm

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Tim Winton’s brilliant novel Breath and I was thinking how this scene is so much about writing, about taking on the big scary story, about writing alone in your room and loving it because you have gone somewhere you never thought you could or would, discovered things about yourself or your characters. Pikelet and Loonie and Sando have just been surfing the big waves at Barney’s.

from Tim Winton’s Breath

Heading home from the first day at Barney’s, bone-sore and lit up, we relived the morning wave by wave, shoring it up against our own disbelief. By common assent, Loonie had caught the wave of the day. It was a smoker. I was paddling back out through the channel when he got to his feet. The wave reared up, pitched itself forward and simply swallowed him. I heard him scream for joy or terror and could only see him intermittently as he navigated a path beneath the warping fold of water. He was a blur in there, ghostly. When finally he shot out and passed me, he looked back at the weird, dilating eye of the wave and gave it the finger.

Geez, I wish we had a camera, he said afterwards, as we chugged back through the forest. It was too good. Shoulda got a photo.

Nah, said Sando. You don’t need any photo.

But just to show, to prove it, sorta thing.

You don’t have to prove it, said Sando. You were there.

Well, least you blokes saw it.

My oath, I said.

But it’s not even about us, said Sando. It’s about you. You and the sea, you and the planet.

Loonie groaned. Hippy-shit, mate.

Is that right? said Sando indulgently.

Orright for you. You got plenty of shots to prove what you done. Honolulu Bay, man. Fuckin A.

All that’s just horseshit, said Sando. It’s wallpaper.

Easy for you to say.

Sando was quiet for moment. You’ll learn, he said in the end.

Loonie beat his chest there in the confines of the Kombi cab.

Learn? Mate, I bloody know!

I laughed but Sando was unmoved.

Son, he said. Eventually there’s just you and it. You’re too busy stayin alive to give a damn about who’s watchin.

Mate, said Loonie, straining to maintain his bravado. I don’t know what language you’re talkin.

You’ll be out there, thinking: am I gunna die? Am I fit enough for this? Do I know what I’m doin? Am I solid? Or am I just… ordinary?

I stared, breathless, through the broken light of trees.

That’s what you deal with in the end, said Sando. When it’s gnarly.

How does it feel? I murmured.

How does what feel?

When it’s that serious.

You’ll find out.

Like, I mean, twenty feet, said Loonie subdued now.

Well, you’re glad there’s no stupid photo. When you make it, when you’re still alive and standin at the end, you get this tingly-electric rush. You feel alive, completely awake and in your body. Man, it’s like you’ve felt the hand of God. The rest of it’s just sport’n recreation, mate. Give me the hand of God any day.

Shoulder to shoulder in the cab, Loonie and I exchanged furtive looks. There was something of the classroom about Sando, the stink of chalk on him when he got going, but my mind was racing. I’d already begun to pose those questions to myself and feel the undertow of their logic. Was I serious? Could I do something gnarly, or was I just ordinary? I’ll bet my life that despite his scorn Loonie was doing likewise. We didn’t know it yet, but we’d already imagined ourselves into a different life, another society, a state for which no raw boy has either words or experience to describe. Our minds had already gone out to meet it and we’d left the ordinary in our wake.