Shaun Levin

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.


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