Shaun Levin

Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Focusing to Let Go

In Writing on March 12, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Twenty minutes is about all L can manage. And that’s on a good day. Sometimes twenty seconds is a triumph. When he’s having a boxing lesson at the gym, 20 seconds is a lot. He worries about what people around him are saying. He worries that he’s not very good and that he looks ridiculous and what made him think he’d ever be able to box. He used to fantasise about being able to dance, learning ballet, and when he looks at the boxers training – sparring, not fighting – they look like ballet dancers. The grace, the speed, the control that seems effortless. That’s how L wants to move, and with the added perk of being able to protect himself. Every fighting art seems to have that grace, capoera, tai chi, karate, all seem linked to ballet, or all on the same continuum. Is that what dancing is, a way of protecting yourself? Are those the roots of dance, of speaking to the higher powers, the gods? As if to say: If I can protect myself then god will protect me. Or something like that. Is that the logic of it all?

So C is teaching L how to punch. The jab, the hook, the upper cut, and because they’re doing kick boxing, it’s the knees, too. Very rarely does it feel easy. L’s body feels awkward, rigid, and then when C demonstrates, L is in awe. He thinks: What will it take to be like that? Of course, there is also the distraction of C’s good looks. And people are watching. And the music is loud and L’s coordination is all wrong. How does one step and punch at the same time, or step, then punch. Focus, C says. Just focus.

C tells him that sometimes when he’s in a fight he’s so focused he can’t even hear the crowds, and when he watches a video of the match afterwards, he’s surprised at the level of noise in the place.

But every now and then L gets into a groove and everything disappears except the writing (weren’t we talking about boxing?). Nothing else matters. One moment you’re at point a, then you’re at point b and it feels like a miracle; you can’t remember how you got there! The strange thing about focus is that we do it to let go, to disappear. What C means when he says focus is to let go of everything else around you, to just be in the moment. Food doesn’t matter, nor fame, not even the bank balance, or love. Focus away from distractions, away from other people. He makes focus sounds like a precious thing, a transcendent state. Maybe that’s why L has never been a religious person. Faith is a type of focus.

Focus is a movement outwards into something bigger, stronger, a place where secret knowledge is kept, and it’s a feeling of moving out of your body, of dissolving into something, becoming diffuse. There is no whining in focus, no need and please. Focus is clear of whining. Focus is being in the place you’re meant to be in, not wanting to be somewhere else, not wanting more than there is at this moment in time. Focus is now. Focus is when the thing just keeps going and you don’t know where it’s going to take you and you don’t worry where it’s going to take you because you’ve let go and wherever you land is good. Your hands move and your feet move and there is grace and wonder and elation and smoothness and dancing and you’re floating and flying and diving deep and breathing without thinking about, like that moment at the end of The Big Blue when he finally goes into the water and swims deeper into the sea until there is just a spec of him in the distance.

Focus is letting the cake burn. Focus is not hearing the doorbell ring. Focus is not hearing when your name is called, when you head is buried in a book or in a story or in a game, buried so that you can’t hear the shouting or the laughing and maybe there isn’t any because everyone is so focused on doing what they’re doing, in the moment, in the running and jumping and boxing and lifting and writing and singing and dancing and shooting and grabbing and flying and floating until the very last second.

Too Much Drama Too Close to the Start

In Writing, Writing Exercises on March 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Sometimes you wake up into the hopelessness. What you’ve written is all wrong. That scene you’ve just spent the last few days writing threatens to topple the entire novel with its consequences. And, no, you are not catastrophising! Something as big as that scene should not be happening so near the beginning of the novel; there needs to be time for things like that to build up, time for that kind of crescendo or confrontation to happen. Even hope needs time. And redemption. Drama as big as that can happen later. Save it for the peak. A scene like that, with that kind of energy, can, before it appears, carry the tension and suspense of a novel for a good few chapters.

So what do you do with it now? Now that it’s been written and it’s all wrong.

Sit in it. Sit with the worry and the dread that you’ve messed up, that the novel is on shaky ground and it’s all your fault. You’ve ruined it. Sit with that. Make a cup of tea and sit in a chair you don’t often sit in and think about what to do. On a day like yesterday, after what has felt like, and has been weeks of grey skies, sheets of it weighing down on the city like an iron dome, you could sit outside in the sun. That’s somewhere you haven’t been able to sit very often recently. Sit in the chaos. Mythology teaches us that chaos cannot last forever. Even if it feels like it will.

The solution (ie. order) can only come out of the chaos. No distractions. No outside help. This is a big one and you need to go it alone. It’s your novel. To paraphrase the Abbess of Crewe, in her lofty calm: “There’s a novel going on, and you’re in it up to the neck, whether you like it or not.”

One solution is to mute the scene, to take the intensity down a notch or two. Save the major drama for later. The major drama you thought would happen now can be postponed; the muted version will create a hunger for more, a bloodlust for the real showdown. And that hunger will sit in the novel like a secret, like a time bomb, an IED, something waiting to be told, to erupt, to reveal itself when least expected. If you know that, the reader will get a sense of it and even if they’re not conscious of it, they’ll be waiting. And so will you.

Save the big drama for your own surprise.

Another thing to do with big drama that feels wrong, that feels over the top too soon, is to turn it into a what-if, an imagined moment. So if you’ve just written the scene in which she lunges for the woman in the department store who’s just called her vile names and yanks the earring from her ear, ripping apart the lobe, you could transform that into what the character imagining doing something so violent, a what-if scenario. And by doing that you will have 1) created a scene of intense drama, albeit imagined, and 2) conveyed the character’s capacity for acts of violence that will now sit in the novel like Chekhov’s loaded gun.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to go to sleep, and to wake up into whatever you wake up into. Sometimes the horror of having done it all wrong is the beginning of the solution. Without that, something not-quite-right might have stayed in the novel and done to it what you most feared it would. It might even have scared you off.

How do we get better if there is never a sense of failure, never a moment of wondering now what? Our mistakes can be an asset. They raise questions, things to grapple with that lead to answers, new ways of dealing with narrative that will then be available to us when similar problems arise in the future.

And yes, I know someone who did that to someone in a department store when she was in high school in North London. But that’s another story.

The Scene that Must Be Written

In Writing on March 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm

It starts like a whisper, an idea, something overheard, a faint sound, or like a need, a thing you’ve been meaning to do without first knowing it was there, and then it’s there. And you know that without it you won’t be able to go on. Not properly. You have to write it. The rest of the work depends on it. Oh, you try and skim past it, the way we ignore people who are central to our lives – a neighbour, an old friend, a family member – but we have to talk to them eventually, or forever be aware of their absence. That’s what it’s like with The Scene that Must Be Written.

There are other things you could do instead. You could wash the dishes, clean your desk, do something frivolous like check for responses to your new profile on match [dot] com, or maybe you should have set one up on Guardian Soulmates. Wouldn’t that be more your type, the intellectuals, the successful media people, that sort of thing.

But the scene will still be there tomorrow, so you might as well write it, might as well start, in fragments, in broad brushstrokes, in sketches with a tentative pencil. And there’s that moment before you start writing The Scene that Must Be Written, a scene in which you know more or less what will happen; you know who’s in it, where it takes place, and what the outcome will be. Everything is in your head and you just need to put it down on the page. That’s how it feels. Like standing at a door that is closed, your hand on the doorknob, taking a deep breath.

Often it’s a scene you weren’t planning on, a scene that has appeared because there is a gap in your novel. It’s a kind of bridge, an important moment, a thread. Sometimes it’s okay to jump for A to C, and it can be very satisfying for the audience, the reader, whomever, to imagine what that B is. But sometimes you have to write the B. In Kevin Powers’ beautiful book The Yellow Birds, he had to write the scene of what really happened to Murph, and you can see how the telling keeps getting postponed, avoided in the way painful retellings are, but then it gets told. It got written. Maybe the scene was the first thing to be written. Either way, it had to be written.

When you’re finally writing the scene the rest of the work disappears and all you want is The Scene. It builds up over time, every day. Maybe it takes a week to write, but from the moment you start writing it it begins to feel real, and suddenly you can see the bench they’re sitting on, and you know what the weather’s like, and how close they are and despite their gloves they’re holding hands because they need all the warmth they can get. It’s winter in Glasgow. On day two you can hear what they’re saying to each other. On day three you’re writing the confrontation with the drunken man, the confrontation you’ve been avoiding because you’re not sure you can do it right. Maybe you’ll get the speech wrong, maybe someone in Glasgow wouldn’t talk like that, maybe they wouldn’t respond to him like that.

There are a million ways to avoid a scene.

And only one way to make one: Write it. Risk making a fool of yourself. Write the first thing that comes to mind. Let you characters say whatever they want. It’s just a draft, it’s just you getting to know the scene. Writing a scene is improv on a stage with no audience. If there’s anything harder than improv in front of an audience, it’s improv in front of an empty theatre. That probably isn’t true, but it might be.

Write the scene and forget the rest of the work. Allow the scene to be the only thing that exists. All there is at this moment, for this hour, this week, however long it takes for The Scene that Must Be Written to be written.

Maybe what I mean is that every part of the story has to be written. Whether it stays in or not is up to us. It kind of links to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory. Once it’s written, once you know what it is, it’ll be in the final story whether you put it in or not. Hemingway believed that sometimes “the omitted part would strengthen the story.” But you can only omit what you know. You can only omit a scene after the scene has been written. Once it’s been written, the knowledge is there in the story.

Neglect and the Novel

In Writing on March 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm

You’ve neglected your novel. For months you’ve been distracted, done other things, made excuses, promised to come back, until eventually you’re here again, at your desk. You’ve got time and no excuses. You worried that either of you may have lost interest, but neither of you have. Your novel wants to be written. You try to remember why you abandoned it in the first place. Things were going well when you started out, you’d accumulated experiences, anecdotes, scenes based mainly on things that had happened but with quite a bit of fictionalising. There was a light touch to it all, humour, and you liked that; you didn’t want heaviness, or the melancholy and death pervading the last few things you’d written, all that suicide and madness and the horrors of the First World War you’ve been writing about for the past seven years.

This was going to be a joyous novel, and you enjoyed writing it. You thought it would be like this until the end, that finally you’d write a book with a light touch to it, and humour, and something mildly interesting to say about the state of the world at this point in time. You hit 60,000 words, more than you’ve ever managed for one novel in such a short time. Then you abandoned the book.

Now, coming back to it, you see that it is very much an anecdotal book – “But I knew that already!” – and you notice that there’s something missing, that a strong thread is missing to hold it all together. A rope. The way things stand now, there’s nothing stronger to hold it together than the passing of time. Sometimes that is enough, but in the case of the novel it’s not.

You’re back in the novel. You’re turning up at your desk every morning, showing up, seeing that the book is far from finished, that it wants to go deeper, to say things you hadn’t planned on. Time and distance have given you perspective. Your novel is posing a challenge and you can choose to take it on or not. Are you prepared, willing, brave enough to follow it to the murky, complex unsettling places it wants to go to? What do you do with a novel that wants to take you somewhere, to show you something, to demonstrate that perhaps you can do something you’ve never done before.

You think of the word “lure” but that’s not the right word.

“No” is always an option. Force the novel to go somewhere else, impose an agenda, ignore what it’s saying. Walk away. It’s easy to walk away, but the more you become aware of what you’re doing, the more you see it’s a choice, it’s as simple as doing it or not doing it, as simple as turning up and sitting down. At some point you have to meet the novel head on.

You’re always abandoning things. You start something and then at some point you walk away. It’s how you operate. You have a stable of unfinished stories. Some of them want to be novels. Some of them want to go the whole way, but you’ve said stop. They call out to you: Write me. They say: We want to unravel, to unfold, we want to expose the full drama of our stories, and if you let us, you won’t have to keep carrying us around with you, we’ll stop nagging you and reminding you of all your Unfinished Business.

Maybe “neglect” is the wrong word. Maybe “abandon” is the wrong word, too. Maybe that’s how you work, and in the end you always come back. Maybe that’s a rationalisation, but at the moment you’re back and you’re writing and the novel feels good and scary and rich.