Shaun Levin

Archive for the ‘Writing Exercises’ Category


In Writing, Writing Exercises on May 27, 2011 at 10:40 am

It’s important to have friends to whom you can talk about writing, with whom writing-talk is part of the ebb and flow of all conversations. One friend is enough. One friend with whom it feels natural and right to talk about writing. And I don’t mean someone who you can moan with about how you’re blocked or can’t write or whatever (though this is important, too), but really a friend with whom you can talk about a story, or your characters in a novel, or an issue you’re having with one of your chapters and the friend wants you to go into detail. They will listen and talk to you about your characters as if they were your own family. This friend will know that these characters are as important to us as your own family.

A friend to write with is also a good thing. A friend with whom you meet up and sit down and spend twenty or thirty minutes writing and then read to each other. Sometimes the prompt to writing can be something you’ve been talking about or you can read to each other or you can look through books of writing exercises for an exercise to follow. Sometimes, too, just being together with that friend is prompt enough to start writing. That moment of stillness when you say that it’s time to write and you turn to your notebook and bow your head to the page and follow the movement of your pen.

It is also good to have a writer-friend to talk to whose issues with writing are interesting to you, whose thoughts about writing engage you and challenge you and excite you. You want a writer-friend who’s going to stretch you, who will introduce you to new writers, who’ll make you think about your own writing, a writer-friend who is both a companion and a guide. And the conversation with them will not be just about writing, but about relationships, too, and theatre, and their other friends, and your friends, and families, and food, and lovers, everything that feeds your writing and that strengthens a friendship and trust, because to talk about writing one needs to trust. It is not possible to talk to a person about writing if you don’t trust them. All of us have tried that, and sometimes we get burnt. Talking to just anyone about writing can be dangerous for the muse, even detrimental. New lovers are the wrong people to talk to about writing. And family, they often are the wrong people to talk to, although if you have a psychologist in the family (which I do), they can be a good person to have around. They will be a good person to talk to about your characters. Often they will ask good questions, they will treat your characters like the human beings they are.

Just because someone is a friend doesn’t mean you should talk to them about writing. Not many people understand the need to sit alone in a room with your imaginary companions. A writer-lover can be a good thing. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne used to read to each other at the end of each day.

There was nothing I did not discuss with John.

Because we were both writers and both worked at home our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.

I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. There was no separation between our investments or interests in any given situation. Many people assumed that we must be, since sometimes one and sometimes the other would get the better review, the bigger advance, in some way “competitive”, that our private life must be a minefield of professional envies and resentments. This was so far from the case that the general insistence on it came to suggest certain lacunae in the popular understanding of marriage.

from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

Plotting and Letting Go

In Writing, Writing Exercises on May 6, 2011 at 8:24 pm

How do we learn to follow a story, to follow a trail, to follow a scent? We can map and plan and plot, but we have to learn to let go. To plan. And then let go. Flex. Release. (Real ease.) Flex. Release. And again. Draw a map of all your character’s friends (or your own friends from a specific time in your life). Notice the different types of friends they have. Is there a certain type of friend that might be missing? A friend who gives good advice (even if they don’t listen to it)? A friend who irritates them? A friend who was a lover? A story needs a range of types, a diversity of types, even if they’re just small roles. A cameo is often enough. It’s important to bring the unexpected into your story, the character that even you weren’t planning to put there. Make the story a challenge for yourself, too. Make the story something you don’t quite know how to deal with, don’t quite know how it will pan out. But keep planning. Then releasing yourself into it. Planning, then releasing.

Draw maps of your story. Orient yourself in it, then let go. If you see an alleyway that you fancy, go down it, because once you know the lay of the land around you, you know where you have to come back to, you know in which direction the main thoroughfare is and at some point soon you’ll be back on it. How many of these sidestreets should you follow, and if there’s a flight of stairs going down, leading to something – a bar? A drinking den? a secret something or other – should you follow that? And what if there’s some big fight going on down there, or a late-night jazz jam session? Should you follow that? Follow it and see where it takes you and it might or might not be a dead end, but if the entrance appears to you, it’s your job to follow it and see what happens. You can always get back onto the main thoroughfare. And maybe there’s a stairway going up, too, and you can get onto the roof and see what the world of your story looks like from that perspective. That view might be important to your story.

Write and write and write, then take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Accept guidance or an outsider’s eye, listen to ways of opening up your story. There might be doors and alleyways you haven’t noticed – doors that are often staring at us, a sentence that wants to keep going, an emotion that wants to be explored, a view that wants to be seen in greater details. How do we learn to open those places up, to open the story. It’s about following the story. Often the clues are there before us in the story and we don’t trust ourselves, or are too controlling, too committed to the belief that we must be in command of the story, that the story goes where we tell it to go. Trust your intuition, follow the tangent; often, that’s where the treasure lies. When there’s something you actively don’t want to write about, or resist writing about, that’s the thing that you need to write, maybe not for itself, but for what’s hiding behind it.

What We Can Teach

In Writing, Writing Exercises, Writing Workshops on April 27, 2011 at 6:27 pm

We can teach how to open up a story, how to explore a moment, to make it last, to make that moment feel like time is important, that time passes slowly and quickly. That you can make leaps in time and that you can make a second last for three pages. There is a section in a story called “The Rainy River” in Tim O’Brien’s brilliant The Things They Carried where he does this with the kind of grace that leaves me breathless. It’s a moment when he’s deciding whether to jump off the fishing boat, swim across to Canada, and not go to war in Vietnam.

Here it is in full:

Bobbing there on the Rainy River, looking back at the Minnesota shore, I felt a sudden swell of helplessness come over me, a drowning sensation, as if I had toppled overboard and was being swept away by the silver waves. Chunks of my own history flashed by. I saw a seven-year-old boy in a white cowboy hat and Lone Ranger mask and a pair of holstered six-shooters; I saw a twelve-year-old Little League shortstop pivoting to turn a double play; I saw a sixteen-year-old kid decked out for his first prom, looking spiffy in a white tux and a black bow tie, his hair cut short and flat, his shoes freshly polished. My whole life seemed to spill out into the river, swirling away from me, everything I had ever been or ever wanted to be. I couldn’t get my breath; I couldn’t stay afloat; I couldn’t tell which way to swim. A hallucination, I suppose, but it was as real as anything I would ever feel. I saw my parents calling to me from the far shoreline. I saw my brother and sister, all the townsfolk, the mayor and the entire Chamber of Commerce and all my old teachers and girlfriends and high school buddies. Like some weird sporting event: everybody screaming from the sidelines, rooting me on—a loud stadium roar. Hotdogs and popcorn—stadium smells, stadium heat. A squad of cheerleaders did cartwheels along the banks of the Rainy River; they had megaphones and pompoms and smooth brown thighs. The crowd swayed left and right. A marching band played fight songs. All my aunts and uncles were there, and Abraham Lincoln, and Saint George, and a nine-year-old girl named Linda who had died of a brain tumor back in fifth grade, and several members of the United States Senate, and a blind poet scribbling notes, and LBJ, and Huck Finn, and Abbie Hoffman, and all the dead soldiers back from the grave, and the many thousands who were later to die—villagers with terrible burns, little kids without arms or legs—yes, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were there, and a couple of popes, and a first lieutenant named Jimmy Cross, and the last surviving veteran of the American Civil War, and Jane Fonda dressed up as Barbarella, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and my grandfather, and Gary Cooper, and a kind-faced woman carrying an umbrella and a copy of Plato’s Republic, and a million ferocious citizens waving flags of all shapes and colors—people in hard hats, people in headbands—they were all whooping and chanting and urging me toward one shore or the other. I saw faces from my distant past and distant future. My wife was there. My unborn daughter waved at me, and my two sons hopped up and down, and a drill sergeant named Blyton sneered and shot up a finger and shook his head. There was a choir in bright purple robes. There was a cabbie from the Bronx. There was a slim young man I would one day kill with a hand grenade along a red clay trail outside the village of My Khe.

(from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried)

We can teach what you can do with words. How you can start a sentence in an infinite number of ways, how you can say whatever you want and people will believe you. We want to believe what you put on the page and it is up to you to entertain us and transport us and do things for your own enjoyment, the way the poet dances naked when everyone is asleep in William Carlos Williams’s poem “Danse Russe”. You are here for your own enjoyment. Do things with words that delight you, that surprise you, that make you cry, the make you giggle.

We can learn how to do all these things, but we can only do them if we’re prepared to do soul work. The soul work of writing. And by that I mean that everything exists inside us, deep down, and in order to write honestly and with integrity we have to go to that place that is visible only to us, a place that is devoid of cliché, that is not drowned out by the voice of society and civilisation and television and the crowd. It may be a tribal voice, but it is so deep that it feels like it is only ours, because it is our memory placed on top of, or mixed with, wrapped up in tribal memory, all those stories and voices that we are born with, that exist in our DNA.

How can we teach a writer to go there, a person who wants to be a writer, rather than a person who wants to write. That distinction is one of the challenges of the teacher in any creative writing class or workshop, because so many people come because they want to write, or they want to try it out, but very few come because they want to be a writer, yet to teach well, you have to treat everyone as if they wanted to be a writer, give them a sense of what it means to be one, of what writing is actually about, of what it means to write. Teach them how to look, how to do things with words, how to create an effect, how to play, how to let go. Teach them about perspective and observation and how to slow down. The main challenge of writing is how to slow down, how to be in a story, in the world that you are creating.

It is technique. And it is soul work. It is individuality, and it is an acknowledgement of the context we’re working in, the centuries of writers, of people who have tried to make sense of the world, and entertain, and stay sane through putting pen to paper alone in a room. And that is the atmosphere you want to create in the classroom, the feeling that we as safe here in a group around a table as we are in our rooms, alone at our desks.

The more a teacher knows about their own process of writing, the better teacher they will be. You can teach best from your own place of struggling with the craft of writing, of translating the sensual into words. A workshop is really about making a space for people to write and experiment with words in ways they might not do on their own. Surprise them so that they will surprise themselves with what they write. Take them to a park and give them blindfolds and let them touch the plants and the grass and the barks of trees, then get them to write about that.