Shaun Levin

Archive for April, 2016|Monthly archive page

Wrestling with a Story

In Writing on April 5, 2016 at 8:18 pm

First person or third. I can’t remember which came first. I may have started the story in first and then translated it  into third, or maybe it began in the third person. The story is autobiographic-ish, based on someone I know, someone I was kind of in love with but who wasn’t in love back. The story was a What If. What if we’d taken everything to its extreme. It’s not a story with a happy ending.

A few years ago I finished the story in the third person and sent it off to a competition and it won. I don’t remember what the competition was called and there was no big hoo-hah around it, but it was nice to win – it’s always nice to win – and there was even a bit of cash involved. You’d think that would set the story in stone, that acceptance would be the end of it. But the story never got published – it wasn’t that sort of competition – and it’s hard to let go of an unpublished story.

Print is the final goodbye. I know that’s not entirely true, that writers like Raymond Carver changed stories radically from one printing to the next, say from printing in a magazine to the story’s appearance in a collection, or from one collection to another. I don’t want to spend these twenty minutes doing research, but I think it was a story that appeared in What We Talk About and again in Cathedral. Was it “Small Things” that was also called “Popular Mechanics”? Am I it’s-all-coming-back-to-me correctly?

Now as I write I’m asking myself: Why not try the second person? I’ve always liked the intensity and intimacy of the second person. It often feels like the most creative voice to hide behind when writing autobiographical stuff.

The struggle is… the grappling is… the wrestling with the story happens when the right voice won’t make itself known to you right away; the pen takes a while to get on the scent. You have a story, you know pretty much what you want to say, but finding the voice in which to tell it, is not so easy. Eventually you have to let go. Putting a story into a collection or getting it published is one way to stop wrestling with it.

I had a story like that in my first collection. I think it was called “Everything is Sweets” or something like that. I fought that story for years, maybe close to ten years, it hung around and kept changing , kept not being in the right voice. Bits of the story itself changed, things got added, taken away. I couldn’t tell you what got lost and gained along the way. It got published. I let go.

On some level, one wants a story to reveal itself to you, to tell you what it needs. The way a good lover will tell you what they need to be happy. At the moment, the story is being difficult and it wants me to work out why. You figure out what I needs! It’s giving nothing away, no clues. If only I knew the right words, I could make it run smoothly. Something’s missing and I’m not sure what. Yes, the voice isn’t right, but the voice will bring the right story with it, too; the right voice let me know what’s missing from the story or what needs to be taken out. The voice will tell me the story.

So I continue to wrestle. Or at least that’s what I should be doing, instead, I’ve walked away, gone to other stories and let the difficult story simmer, or sulk, or rest, or get some distance – give me some space! – or whatever it is that I need or the story needs to become clearer when we meet again. Maybe there’s a truth in the story that I’m not ready to hear. Maybe the story has something to tell me that I’m not ready to face. Maybe, and isn’t this the case with the creative process in general, one of us needs to submit. And seeing as there’s only one of us here, that one of us will have to find a way to quietly submit to the story.

Next time: Let’s talk about submission.


Time for a New Book

In Writing on April 3, 2016 at 2:51 pm

Not until you start putting together a collection can you know what it’s about. In the beginning, the motivation is the idea itself. A book. A new book. It’s been a while since the last one. You have, in a variety of folders on your desktop, various stories and essays that have been published over the past 24 years. You start by creating an inventory, the first draft of a contents list. You create a new folder and copy into it all the pieces you’ve already published, minus all the stories that appeared in your first collection ten years ago. The truth is, you finished a novel and sent it out to a million agents – at least a million – and to some publishers, and 10% of them sent back their no-thank-yous. The rest, if one was the waiting type, one would, eighteen months later, still be waiting for. You figure that in the meantime you might as well put together a collection of stories and essays.

At the new bookshop up the road, you stumble upon Hanif Kureishi’s Love + Hate: Stories and Essays, and you take it as a sign that the two things (things?!) can go together. You fell out of love with Hanif Kureishi about ten years ago, but this book has revived some of the love you’d lost.

So, once you’ve packed the folder with your stories and essays, you print them out.

By you I mean me. I.

I’m surprised how many there are. I give myself a pat on the back. Well done you. Well done. Not bad at all. Already I’m feeling better about things. The piece I like the most is a gratitude piece, a list piece about the writers and other humans who’ve made me the kind of writer/human I am today. The essay was published in a collection three years ago. It feels like a good place to start. The call in the call and response. The response being the rest of the book-to-be.

The New York piece comes after that, then the piece set in Abney Park Cemetery, then another one and another one, and a theme starts to emerge. A book that was going to be a collection of twenty years of sex writing, is turning into a book about immigration, London, Tel Aviv, rootedness, rootlessness. The pieces seem to flow from one to the next. The book gains its own momentum.

Shaun Levin edited page

From an essay on Shakespeare and Co Bookshop in Paris. Originally published in Hebrew in Masa Acher, a travel magazine.

You read through the book. You edit as you go along. From a distance of 10 years, 5 years, a couple of years, it’s easy to be ruthless, enjoyable even. Look how sharp I am. I feel focused, clear. It’s like you’ve been training for this. It feels strange not to be tormented by doubt and the chaos of creation. Cleaning things up is fun. Being streamlined.

Then you get to a story that refuses to comply.

To be continued.