Shaun Levin

Archive for May, 2022|Monthly archive page

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.