Shaun Levin

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.

  1. I really like your guidelines. I was going to say you ought to send them out to your workshop attendees. But you foster those very guidelines in your kind, thoughtful, positive, inspirational, uplifting response; you model the guidelines, which is such a powerful, the best way, to teach.

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