Shaun Levin

Going Far, Then Going Further

In Writing, Writing Workshops on November 7, 2012 at 10:10 am

How far do you go? How far do you push yourself? What steps have you taken recently to go outside of your comfort zone? How much of your work comes easily, not just  the pen on paper stuff, but the subject matter, the places you take your work, the things your characters do. The soul work. How difficult do you make it for yourself so that you think, Wow, I never thought I’d be able to write something like that? How much of what comes out of your imagination, and by extension your fingertips, surprises you, jolts you, leaves you dizzy?

For the past four weeks I’ve been pushing myself. I’ve done things I never thought I could do. Things I’ve thought about but was too afraid, embarrassed, or lazy to take on. I’ve bench pressed. I’ve never bench pressed before, and now I’m doing bench presses with weights that feel dangerously heavy.

“They wont fall on your chest,” he says.” That’s what I’m here for, to make sure it doesn’t happen. Do you feel unsecure?”

“Insecure,” I say. “Yes, I do.”

“Not unsecure?” he says. “It’s not correct?”

He’s Romanian. His English is fluent.

“No,” I say.

“When you learn something wrong,” he says. “The wrong word just sticks in your head forever.”

After bench presses we do more weights, and on days when we don’t do weights we do boot-camp, and when it’s not boot-camp, it’s boxing. I’ve never boxed in my life. Now I’m boxing. Left hook, upper cut, jab.

“Come on, Shaun,” he says. “You can do it.”

And just to hear that voice is like a cheering audience of hundreds.

That’s what writing workshops can be like. When someone pushes you to go places you would never have gone to on your own. Not just maybe, not just eventually, but never. I remember those moments in workshops I’ve been to when I did something I never thought was possible. Simple things sometimes, but things that changed my repertoire, the things one can do with one word after the other. I remember the first time, almost twenty years ago, when the tutor asked us to write a memory in the first person, and then when we were done, she said, now translate that into the third person. What magically happened with the words on the page blew my mind.

And the thing is, I can see the difference. My body feels different. Things get easier. I feel different when I’m walking around. Different when i get up in the morning. Though this morning’s good feeling has a lot to do with the US election results.

There is a moment – it can be as long as five seconds – when I’m standing there in the gym about to do another 20 push-ups after bench presses and bicep curls on the cable machine, and my mind is going: What am I supposed to do now? What is it you want from this body? Can’t we just go back to what we know? We’ve never done this before. Why are you asking us to do this all of a sudden? Cant we just, like, you now, give up?

And I stand there and he says, “No pausing. The whole point is to go from one exercise to the next. No pauses.”

And I do it. I go there. And it’s hard. My arms are shaking. People are watching. (But are they really?) And I’m thinking I cant do any more, and he’s standing there going, Come on, Shaun, you can do it. And more often than not I can do it. And I push myself and it feels good.

So this has all got me thinking about how little I push myself. Not just at the gym, but in my writing. To go where I’ve never been before, to go where it’s scary and dangerous. If you really want to grow, you can’t keep going to what you know. It’s fine if you just want to keep moving, but to actually expand, to have bigger biceps, stronger abdominals. To go to places where you think: This might kill me, the weight of this might come crashing down. But the thing is it probably won’t. There are writers who have gone further than me and have survived. Toni Morrison went there with Beloved. Bret Easton Ellis with American Psycho. Andrew Holleran with The Beauty of Men. It’s about imagining the place and then going there, and going all the way, going until you feel you can’t go any more, then going further.

  1. I’m impressed, and a bit scared. Impressed by the bench-pressing etc and scared at the propect of pushing myself further with my writing. Shaun, you always manage to do that to me, for which I’m grateful, I guess. I still haven’t forgiven you for making me write the death scene for my favourtie character.That said, the implications of the death have stuck and spun off all sorts of other storylines.

    Ah, I miss your workshops.

    • Thanks, Sue. I’m with you on the scared bit. And as for helping to kill characters… well, I have been called “the sniper” before in a workshop!

  2. Thanks for sharing Shaun, it really helps today, I was feeling anxious about my last post on W.A.T. maybe I still should be and yes I’m so glad I signed up to it, your exercises are stretching me, but I feel ready for the challenge. If I was a financially rich person I’d pay for you to come here and run a workshop!

    • Thanks, Pawel. I’m enjoying reading your work again, and seeing others enjoying it, too. You’re definitely someone I think of as not being afraid to go far, then further.

      • Happy tears fall…it’s been my life, all that ‘mind, body, spirit’ work, digging away for my ‘truth’; I can’t help myself, I have had to do it, felt compelled. You know, ‘do or die’ that simple-that hard, he, he! The Bench press of life! I feel the challenge now is to share it, shape it into something physical, in part to move on…I’m getting glimpses of how, it feels like the logical next step…and I am imagining it ‘as if’. Nothing is created without first imagining it, is it? Feel the fear and do it anyway…might sound trite, but I know how hard it is and how it’s softened and strengthened me at the same time.

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