Shaun Levin

Archive for 2022|Yearly archive page


In Uncategorized, Writing on October 28, 2022 at 10:44 am

Your style is where you fell short but kept going anyway.

I’m not sure that’s true but at the moment it feels like it might be. You aimed for something and you couldn’t do it but what remains is the thing they call style. I say this because someone said “I like your style” and I thought: Style? I can’t even draw! I’ve been learning to draw. At the moment it’s life drawing. I attend regular life drawing classes online and I fall short.

I want to draw the human figure the way the human figure should be drawn, the way it’s drawn in what I guess you’d call traditional ways. Of course, there are also moments when I think, no, that’s not what I want. I just want to have fun and play. I want to see what I can do with what I have, with what comes naturally (if there is such a thing). Maybe that’s what style is. If you’re having fun, that’s probably a sign you’re writing or drawing or painting in a way you feel at home in. Despite and maybe because of that nudging nagging feeling that I should be doing it properly. I should be writing great family sagas, historical dramas, doing what Jane Austen did, what Dostoevsky did, what VS Naipaul did, what all those robust writers did. Big grand novels. What Caravaggio did, Virginia Woolf, even, Picasso, even, if you look at his earlier work, at Hilma af Klint’s earlier work. But you look at their earlier work, even the work of Kandinsky, for example, and you realise that what they were doing at the beginning was not their style, or at least the style they are known for.

Style is the opposite of tradition. Or a conversation with tradition. Or a refuting of tradition, a skill for those who once did it the traditional way. At some point we thought that’s what writing should be. Traditional. Tradition was all we had to refer to, at least most of the time. It’s what everyone was doing so should we be doing it too, writing like that, drawing like that, painting like that. As I gradually immerse myself in the world of drawing and illustration (not yet painting, still not) I feel how there is much more room for the non-traditional, in a way that I’m not sure writing or literature has many examples of. Maybe it’s to do with how we think of language, what we expect when we open a book, what you can actually do in a book made up of only words.

Sometimes I feel like that I can’t draw, not in the traditional way, not with much skill. When it comes to writing it’s a bit more complex. I studied literature. I read a lot, more in teh past than now, but still. Question: Is the link between looking at paintings and painting per se (I love that expression: per se! So archaic, such chubby cheeks to pinch) the same as reading is to writing? Maybe looking closely at paintings for the past many years has been some kind of groundwork, some kind of permission to play and to tell myself that this might be my style, and then to keep doing it, and by doing it become better at it.



In Writing on June 13, 2022 at 10:09 am

There is something about the novel, about the short story, but mainly the novel, that’s always moving towards resolution towards solving putting things in order and the illusion that this is what writing is for, to give form to existence to anxiety to the internal world to make sense. What if there is no shape what if there is no deep longing for form, that a form must be found to reflect the no-sense of existence, that there isn’t always a longing for comfort. But I’m not sure I follow you, I’m not sure I’m saying what I mean. The writing itself will find its form like water will find its flow. Yes, it’s nice if there’s a dam, nice if there’s a canal and a lock and an irrigation system, but what if you follow the water what if you let the water flow as it wants to flow, do what it wants to do and let that be the shape, let nature dictate the shape, the internal world (the closest we get to nature) create the shape. My god it’s hot and I’m sitting here writing and sweating and even with the AC on evidence of our triumph over nature I can barely breathe it is so hot and sticky and I feel ugly and fat and untouchable sat in the blobbiness the wobbliness of thoughts, the melting and resistance of ugliness and what is the form? Ugliness. What is the form of ugliness if we let it find its own flow everything merging together the messiness and the anxiety and the beauty and the clear and vague the shaped and unshaped, the diffuse, the sharp, to put them together for all of that to live together and that is the form the form is the mess (the complexity, okay, the complexity) of existence and that is what the novel wants to fix to shape into something nice to move towards nice make order out of ugly but what if there is no order what if you don’t need order if you don’t need to calm and comfort by making up stories what if I create something that is messy and ugly and that’s all there is, but the creating is the triumph, the creation is the grace, the making is the AC, the showing of that the exposing of that without the movement towards order towards comfort towards reassurance. Art as an act of survival not as a sense-making, order-making effort. How do you survive? By art. To put everything into one place, the writing, the sketching, the photographs, the poems, the memories, all of that into one place because all of that exists together (in nature) and we are here (here I am) so intent on the segregation of the gestures of expression, the creative outlets, and what would happen if everything went into one place, if everything was there and nothing was left out? I’m thinking of a particular project as I write this, a project about a place, a block of flats I lived in for twelve years, and the different ways to tell that story all the different elements that want to go into that story, the story of one building in one city on an island. Stories and photographs and illustrations and architectural drawings and memories to piece together a time, not to bring order but to remember to document to archive to hold onto to let go and not let go, to put to use, not to waste seeing as we’ve made a choice to make art our survival mechanism and everything is sustenance.

To explore: The writer as hoarder and declutterer.

Tell Me More

In Writing, Writing Workshops on May 17, 2022 at 12:07 pm

In 1997 when I started running creative writing workshops, I used to hand out a page with how-to suggestions for reading your work and giving feedback. The guidelines were adapted from Elaine Farris Hughes’ Writing from the Inner Self and Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, books that, along with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, resonated with me in a way that shaped my practice as a writer and my approach to workshops.

When I compiled the handout twenty-five years ago I knew on some intuitive level that we don’t learn to write and be writers through critique. Critique does not teach us how to write.

Honestly, it’s been so many years since I was in a critiquing environment that I can’t remember exactly what people say. I never liked those environments and I never liked what people said, unless they said nice things, then I liked it because those nice things made me want to keep writing. If anything, keeping writing is what makes us writers. We learn to write by learning how to write more, by wanting to write more, to expand, think deeper, notice more, go on tangents, waste nothing (so much gets wasted, left out, too much), experience the thrill of a tangent, long or short, a page, a chapter, a few lines, and then the return to the thread that is seeing us through the story.

The act of writing is where I am most at peace, as when I’m in a swimming pool or the sea, anywhere in water, the bath, too. I remember the thought distinctly, the feeling, when I wrote my first story in English, when I wrote exactly what I wanted to write and the story flowed, the language flowed, me and the language were one. This was after living in Hebrew for almost fifteen years and already having published a couple of stories in Hebrew, a language I immigrated into as a teenager. I sat down one day and wrote that story in English, the story of a person at the window of a shoe shop looking at a pair of stilettos. That was the story that took me back into the language I had grown up in. Three years later I moved to London where I lived for just over twenty years.

Five years ago I moved back into living in another language, but by then I had found my voice. Not just my voice, by which I mean my subject matter and the way in which I like writing about it, a way of writing that feels like my own, my way of doing it. I felt, too, I feel, that I have accumulated enough unfinished and almost-finished work to last me a long time, many years, I don’t want to say a lifetime because new projects are always appearing, making themselves known and available – pick me, pick me – but enough that I feel I have turned up in Spanish with a substantial stockpile of writing to keep expanding on.

Lumb Bank, October 1999. Photographer unknown (Penny, perhaps)

Writing taught me how to write. Being immersed in writing taught me how to write, those weeks at the Arvon Foundation’s Lumb Bank or Totleigh Barton, were weeks that made me a writer, made me want to keep writing. If we have a role as a teacher, a fellow writer, I mean, isn’t that what we want from our fellow human being, is to hear and say the words: Tell me more about… The more we hear those words, the likelier we are to make them our own, to keep asking ourselves that, tell me more, so that we keep writing, despite the critiques and regardless.

Embrace the Tangent

In Story, Writing on May 11, 2022 at 9:24 am

“She grabbed a piece of fruit and ran for the bus.”

Don’t say “fruit” say…

Words are memories – if she grabbed a strawberry, or a slice of melon, or an apple, or a wedge of an orange (wedge? Why wedge? All wedged in there like something that’s been missing from her life, my life, our lives) and whatever fruit she grabbed would be a memory, a story to add to the story we’re working on and maybe she’d remember those summers when they went strawberry picking or she’d think how much she missed summers when melons were in season, I mean like really in season, not somewhere else in the world where this melon was from – Spain? Guadeloupe? Morocco? – not quite ripe, not quite right, and nothing was right in her life right now, things were hard, this slice of melon was hard, even though when she bought it she was hoping it would fix something, this melon and all that it held, summer, and joy and so much sweetness of the juice that would run down her chin, but not this slice, not this melon, not this life she was living now, almost late for the bus for a job she almost hated, but not quite fully, nothing quite fully. Fool. And this tangent, this tangent we’re on right now is what stories are made of, stories are made from the tangents we take and we must embrace them, embrace the tangent, because that’s what gives our writing texture, they are the true evidence of our imagination and its workings, this is what my imagination looks like on the page, if you could see inside my head, this is what you would see, this is what a tangent looks like. Singing, this is what a ta-ha-ha-ngent looks like.

And as we do one thing, so we do everything. Who said that? The way we do one thing is the way we do everything? Because if I settled for “fruit” and not the peach or the grapes or the slice of kiwi fruit, then I might settle for imprecision when it comes to other things. A thought, a touch, a feeling, a smell. Don’t avoid the details. They are where trust is built. They are where the connection is established. With the reader. The Reader. Don’t think about the reader. Be honest with your imagination and readers will take care of themselves. Trust is established through the melon. The peach. The over-ripe banana. She’d never eat an over-ripe banana. Never a soft blueberry. Never a floury apple. She hardly ever, almost never, wastes food but she would waste a floury apple. I will waste you, floury apple!

Where were we? Yes, the tangents. Tangents build trust. Tangents are invitations into the private workings of the individual imagination. No two imaginations tangent in the same way. Is tangent a verb? I tangent, you tangent, we all scream for tangents. Give me tangents or give me death. Tangents are the specificity we must name. Don’t let her catch the bus without naming the fruit she’s grabbing from the plate in the kitchen, no, straight from the chopping board, for wasn’t it her lover who’d sliced the melon before he left to catch an early train to Glasgow? No, Paris. Every specific detail has a story, and it’s that story that makes the story in which it appears. Don’t avoid detail. (Okay, I won’t, I won’t, I promise, never!) Don’t avoid story. Don’t avoid the work of the writer. Embrace the tangents. All of writing is a series of tangents as we work our way through creating a story.

Now what was the number of the bus she just got on? (Phew, just in time.). The 116? The 73? Which, of course, is a whole other tangent.