Shaun Levin

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


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