Shaun Levin

The Furtiveness of Writers

In Writing on September 3, 2020 at 9:18 am

Writers are the most secretive of artists. Writers, on the whole, do not think of themselves as artists. For writers, mess is an embarrassment, a thing to hide. I mean, what kind of writer shows their first draft, or their second, or third? When writers talk to the world – this is how to write a best seller, this is how to write a novel – they talk as if a story is a thing to plan and shape before it is written. Writers, on the whole, speak neither of magic nor of mess. And even when they do, they’re unlikely to show their own.

Imagine a painter not speaking of mess. We expect mess from a painter – an artist! – and we like that mess. On the other hand, writers do not consider the mess of their process a thing worth showing. Granted, the mess of writers is easier to hide than the mess of painters. A few back spaces, tap tap tap, the delete key, and it’s gone, all changed.

For a long time I liked her very much and then less and less. Cold, cerebral, Northern, yet her stories lingered as examples of another thing you could do if you did what pleased you on the canvas of the page. Erudite, funny, playful, serious, playfully serious, someone else said when talking about his own approach to writing. I didn’t think about her much for several years, especially since moving back to the South, the heat, but then a few months ago when the world was sent to its room to consider the error of its ways – bad humans! – she became for a while the perfect company as I stumbled my way back out towards the threshold between silence and telling.

What a joy to discover recently in her book of essays called Essays several instances in which she reveals – elegantly, mind you, not messily at all, for she is not the type of writer to be messy – the messiness of a story’s progress. What she says about the role of the notebook in the essay “Revising One Sentence” is relevant to making transparent the drafts of a story: “A writer’s notebook becomes a record, or the objectification of a mind.”

Also from that essay: “It is nice to feel that there is too much to work on rather than nothing at all…” To be continued…

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