Shaun Levin

The Furtiveness of Writers, II

In Writing, Writing Workshops on September 4, 2020 at 8:09 pm

When I speak of mess I mean unshaped writing. We all flounder in the early stages of a story, in the first draft, the second, the third, sketching, searching, making spelling mistakes, mixing up tenses, writing things that will disappear – poof! a few back spaces and you’re gone! And how necessary that is. It is necessary. To stumble, flounder, not worry about good-or-bad.

There is great power in early drafts, in the words composed at the beginning of a story, the beginning of an exploration. To share them takes courage. It’s a risk. Early drafts are evidence of our floundering, our confusion, our uninhibited mind. I see this magic in workshops, one of the rare places where writers share beginnings of things, words not overshaped, words from a place beyond thinking, raw words. I think that’s what happens when you write in company, that’s the gift of it. You learn to love those early drafts, those fumblings for story, for direction. I think it’s also a place where we can learn the power of writing without overthinking, a glimpse into a way of writing that can be done, too, when we are away from the shared writing table.

Attending workshops taught me how to let go into writing, not overthink. The sense of containment, the sense of an audience is part of it. Participating in workshops changed the way I write, courses near a river in North Wales, a workshop in the middle of a sheep field in Devon, week-long courses in Yorkshire just outside Hebden Bridge, a course at this community college, that one, impacted on the course of my writing, the way I write and what I choose to write about. In the company of other writers I learn to write.

By the company of writers I mean dead ones, too, by which I mean books. What I’m trying to say is that we could learn more about writing and about how to write, not how to plot and write a best seller, but really how to write a sentence. I want to see Chekhov struggling with a sentence, I want to see what a sentence by Kafka looked like before it was ready for publication.

Some of this has to do with the clandestine nature of writing, the secrecy, the, maybe not furtiveness, but the privacy of it. Nobody looks over the should of a writer as they refine a sentence, and my god there are so many sentences in a story, not the way someone might look over the shoulder of an artist, I mean look at the size of that canvas, Hockney, it’s beckoning others to look over a shoulder, but the writer, there with their little notebook and its scrunched together words and lines giving off the message: keep out.

Show us how you do what you do, writers, even if it means being the one to look over your own shoulder to tell us what you see.

Connected or not, I like what Lydia Davis says about Kafka: “…the way his fictions grew organically out of his daily life.”

from Kafka’s The Trial (image: The Kafka Project)

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