Shaun Levin

Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

What a Writing Workshop Can Be

In Writing Workshops on February 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm

A writing workshop is a place to gather more material, to generate new stories, to be invited to look at the world and at writing in unexpected ways. Unexpected because new. You go to a writing workshop and you hope to do something with writing that you’ve never done before. That’s what you want when you sit down to write. At least that’s what I want, that every story I write will take me somewhere I’ve never been before, and that I will keep finding new ways to write stories.

Picking people’s work apart is not what interests me in a writing workshop. I think we have to do a lot of the shaping and forming on our own. For me, workshops are about helping others to see that we are bottomless wells of stories, that there is always something new to write about, always different ways to tell a story that we think we’ve told already. I think that a lot of the struggling with our stories has to be done on our own. And then, it’s important to share the questions and dilemmas and choices that are part of that struggle with others, but to actually live with the shaping of the story, its gradual transformation into an organic thing, a world, that’s something we do on our own.

Implied in the workshop set-up is often “I know what’s good for you.” I try to avoid that. It’s tempting to go down that route, but I’m not sure it’s helpful for the other person. A workshop is a space to think about stories, about what goes into a story, what makes a story, and what makes a story last. All this is achieved through talking about great stories, about what word happened first in the sentence, then the one after that, then the one after that. Looking at where the punctuation goes, and what kind of punctuation. I think the most profound course I ever attended at university was a seminar on Conrad’s Lord Jim. It was supposed to be on Conrad in general, but the lecturer spent the whole term on Lord Jim, and from what I remember, pretty much on just one chapter of the book. That’s probably why I don’t remember the book as a whole, but rather that chapter where Jim spends time with the butterfly collector and studies his cases of dead insects.

What I like about going to a workshop is being shown: Look, you can do it this way. You can make a story out of something like that. Or: Read this; this is how you make a story out of two people waiting for the train that’ll take them to a city in which one of them is going to have an abortion.

We have to learn to live with our own stories, to grapple with the gestation and their coming into being. We decide when to let a story go. We have to learn to listen to our stories. In the commotion of a workshop you can lose sight of your story. Stories get lost in workshops. We have to learn to listen to when a story stops needing us, and when our work is done. But most of all we have to learn to listen to where a story wants to go. It’s a process of letting go and following the story. It’s an inward journey to a place that has no words, and because of that, the tools we have – words – are always a gesture of translation, always doomed to be as close to precise as we can.

One thing I love doing in workshops is looking for the connections between the fragments someone has written, to see if you join Fragment A and Fragment B (and C) in this way, layers can be added to the drama of a story. Or: if you’d just tweak this in one or two of the Fragments, the story will fall into place. It’s easier to do that with other people’s work. You need an outsider’s eye for that. An outsider’s eye is really the equivalent of time and distance, because with enough time and distance we become outsiders to our own stories,. Then we can see – if we’re lucky, if we’re open – the connections between the Fragments that were hidden to us in the initial stages of creation.

Writing workshops are a good place to accumulate Fragments.


Can Writing Be a Habit?

In Writing on February 22, 2013 at 10:59 pm

Writing is a zone. A physical zone. In the mind. When you sit down to write you enter a real space, a physical space that is invisible to anyone outside of you. What do we look like when we write? Why doesn’t someone make a movie of people writing, of what writers look like, to make a film of writers at work the way you see painters at work, or sculptors, or photographers. At the A Bigger Splash exhibition at Tate Modern, there’s a short film at the entrance of Jackson Pollock at work. There’s a long narrow painting by him that’s lying flat under glass, a bit like they displayed the scroll of Kerouac’s On the Road recently at the British Library, a bit like a dead body at the viewing. But the film. We’re talking about the film. The film of Pollock at work. When we write we enter a space that is entirely internal, the structure of our inner physicality is re-configured. That is, it is if we’re lucky, lucky to find a voice to write in, a tone, a point of view, a performance that is not the voice we use in our day-to-day, but something else, something more vital, perhaps, stranger, a voice we want to follow and see what it has to say.

For that to happen, we need the habit of writing. If we don’t access that voice every day, it gets harder to hear it. Miss a day, and it takes twice as long to really be in that voice. Miss a few days and it takes longer. No, that’s not entirely correct. It might not take longer to access the voice, but it becomes harder to stay with it, to keep it going, to allow it to be stronger than us, to carry us, to use us. We pray for a voice like that. We experiment with different points of view to tell a story until we find one that is intriguing enough, strange enough, magical enough to hold the story.

And then, once we’d found it, we must feed it. Turning up daily is how we feed it. We feed it by letting it speak through us, and in order for it to speak to us, we have to re-imagine our physicality, reshape ourselves in some way as to enable that voice to speak through us. We have to see ourselves differently to what we are in the world. Maybe that’s why writers retreat, so that we can be in that zone, uninterrupted.

Sometimes we have to get the words down before we find the voice, before we find the point of view to carry the story. Sometimes we need the entire story first. Other times it’s the voice that comes first. Like in the first line of Gogol’s short story “How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich.” The line is: “You should see Ivan Ivanovich’s marvellous short fur jacket!”

And that’s it. That’s the voice sorted. That might not be the first line Gogol wrote of the story, but once you hear that line, you know the voice is secure.

Subject matter is not the problem. Finding what to write about is not a problem. It’s not a problem if we honour the habit. The more we write, the more stories will present themselves to us, things we could write about, stories we could tell. The more we write, the more we are awake to what the world is offering us, and to the resources we carry inside us. Ah, yes, we could write an essay about this, a short story about that, maybe a novel based on x, a series of short stories set in y, a blog all about z.

I’ve got an idea for a novel” becomes interesting and frightening and overwhelming when we start to write it. All we have to do is stick with it. It’s that simple, and that challenging. A writing habit is a form of faith, a way of saying this matters, this is significant, this is worth sticking with. A writing habit is a commitment. But that’s a contradiction. We think of habits as something hard to give up. Writing is easy to give up. Maybe what I’m talking about here is commitment, not habit. Is writing ever a habit? Writing is always a choice. Each day when I go to my desk I choose to go there. It’s easier not to go. It’s much easier to give up the writing habit than it is the habit of chocolate