Shaun Levin

Archive for the ‘Writing Workshops’ Category

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)

A Single Written Sentence

In Writing, Writing Exercises, Writing Workshops on September 1, 2020 at 3:54 pm

It may come as a shock how little time you need to write a book. A story is loyal to those who turn up to write it, and that loyalty grows with the regularity with which one turns up.

(Even though I set the timer and I told myself I’d write for 20 minutes, along came a distraction, and to be honest I can’t remember what the distraction was, maybe it was the delivery guy with the books, but that was 8 hours ago and so much has happened since then, so many distractions, so many nice things, the regular day to day things that fill our hours, like spending time – online, on Whereby – with a friend and doing what we call office time or water-cooler time, in other words, we work in our separate living rooms/studios/bedrooms and there’s accountability. Things get done. Not those initial 20 minutes, though, the ones I started 8 hours ago, so here I am at the other end of the day, starting over.)

It may come as a surprise how little time is needed to write a book. An hour a day is a generous amount, and done daily, seven days a week, as Walter Mosley suggests – no days off – you’ll have a book by the end of the year.

Try it. Set the timer and write for 5 minutes. Whatever comes to mind, even if it’s just to repeat what can I write what can I write I need something to say I want something to say and something will come I promise you that.

In 5 minutes (this is a recent discovery) I usually write approximately 150 words, even with slight pauses here and there, which would mean that in 20 minutes I could do 600 words, which means that in 1 hour I can write almost 2,000 words. 2,000 words over 30 days = 60,000 words, which is a first draft of considerable dimensions. Write for 5 minutes just to see what happens, to get a sense of what you can do in that time. I don’t believe in the importance of word counting, but I do think it’s helpful to know what you can do in a given amount of time. Why? To dispel the myth of the inordinate amount of time needed to write a book. More than the word count, the turning up, the making time is what matters.

Whenever I make time, I have something to show for it, even if it’s just a sentence. A single written sentence is a lot more than an unwritten novel. I’m not sure what that statement actually means, whether it’s of any use to myself or others, but I sense there’s a truth in it.

I want to say something about time spent in good company. Writing with others is my favourite way to write. Writing is lonely, having to be both the writer and the audience is a challenge. Often the project itself is all the company you need, and when that happens it’s a kind of miracle. Writing in a café or art gallery is often all the company I need. But writing with a friend on a park bench or at the kitchen table is my favourite way to write.

Tomorrow’s plan: Writing with friends.

How I Met My Writer Friends*

In Writing, Writing Workshops on July 7, 2013 at 8:52 pm

We met at a reading.

I don’t remember where we met.

We met at a prize-giving where we both won a prize. You were there with your boyfriend and I might have had a boyfriend, too, but I don’t remember. I had quite a few boyfriends in those days. We all went to a bar after the prize-giving in Covent Garden and then we carried on meeting regularly. We wrote together. I liked writing together. Writing with you changed the way I write, opened up a whole new way of approaching my subject matter: Me. We fell out some years later but have recently got back in touch. I think we like each other. I probably fancied you for a while back then, or was jealous of you, which sometimes amounts to the same thing.

I met you in Wales on a writers’ retreat more than fifteen years ago. We laughed a lot and liked each other’s writing. We hadn’t published any books back then, maybe a few stories, but we were writers. We weren’t going to become anything else. There were others there, but I only remember one of them, and she did become a writer, she was a writer already, and went on to publish a book, maybe two, but we didn’t stay in touch. We tried to, but she lived in another city and I’m not so good when it comes to travelling. You lived just outside London and we met regularly, shared work, wrote together. We published a few books each. There was always a bit of competition between us. I tell myself it’s mainly from your end, but that’s probably not true. I’m not very good at admitting to my competitive side.

People ask us where we met and neither of us can remember. It might have been at a book event or we might have been introduced to each other through two or three mutual friends. I’d heard about you and read your work before we met.

We were both reading that evening at an event in a private gallery in someone’s house in North London. I think that was the first time we met. I loved your work and I loved the way you read and I wanted to be your friend. We were friends for a long time. We wrote together. I loved watching you in public. I loved watching you perform and read your work. I loved the way you dressed. We, too, fell out after a few years, and we, too, have been in touch recently. We’ve had dinner a couple of times, and spoken on the phone. I’m seeing you in the next couple of weeks. We are similar in many ways. We both moan about our lack of recognition. We’re both foreigners in this city.

We met… where did we meet? I don’t remember where we met. We’ve been friends for a couple of years, maybe a bit more, and we talk a lot about writing. I like our conversations about writing. We used to write together every week for a few months, but then we stopped because you wanted to stop, because you said you preferred to write alone. I miss writing together.

Sometimes a few of us get together at dinners, usually at my place, and we have a good time together. Some of us know each other from various places and networks. We’ve all heard of each other, or at least most of us have heard of each other.

I met you at an event in South London where we were both reading. I’d heard about you before, maybe we were friends on Facebook before we met. We have friends in common and we are neighbours and we both love to eat meat. So we hang out every now and then and eat meat and talk about writing and what it’s like to be a bit unhinged, much more unhinged than some people we know.

We met because of a mutual friend. We meet every month or so and do writerly things. We both like coffee and cake and we both like to do Jewish-y things and go to places that are linked to the projects we’re working on. We like each other’s work, the work that we read to each other when we meet up to go places and write, though I have a feeling you’ve never read my work.

When we’re together I am who I’m meant to be. I’m in the world as a writer and I feel alive and abundant. I like it when we write together. If I could, I would do all my writing with you. And you. And you. I don’t always like being alone in a room writing, which is probably why I enjoy writing in cafés and art galleries and parks and wherever I can that is not at my desk. I write there with you or with people around me, one of whom could be looking at me and thinking whether to get up and approach, whether to sit down on the bench next to me with their notebook in their lap and silently, without saying a word to each other, because all words must be saved for the work, lift their pen to that blank page and write.

* written in response to the question: Where can I meet other writers?

What a Writing Workshop Can Be

In Writing Workshops on February 25, 2013 at 2:03 pm

A writing workshop is a place to gather more material, to generate new stories, to be invited to look at the world and at writing in unexpected ways. Unexpected because new. You go to a writing workshop and you hope to do something with writing that you’ve never done before. That’s what you want when you sit down to write. At least that’s what I want, that every story I write will take me somewhere I’ve never been before, and that I will keep finding new ways to write stories.

Picking people’s work apart is not what interests me in a writing workshop. I think we have to do a lot of the shaping and forming on our own. For me, workshops are about helping others to see that we are bottomless wells of stories, that there is always something new to write about, always different ways to tell a story that we think we’ve told already. I think that a lot of the struggling with our stories has to be done on our own. And then, it’s important to share the questions and dilemmas and choices that are part of that struggle with others, but to actually live with the shaping of the story, its gradual transformation into an organic thing, a world, that’s something we do on our own.

Implied in the workshop set-up is often “I know what’s good for you.” I try to avoid that. It’s tempting to go down that route, but I’m not sure it’s helpful for the other person. A workshop is a space to think about stories, about what goes into a story, what makes a story, and what makes a story last. All this is achieved through talking about great stories, about what word happened first in the sentence, then the one after that, then the one after that. Looking at where the punctuation goes, and what kind of punctuation. I think the most profound course I ever attended at university was a seminar on Conrad’s Lord Jim. It was supposed to be on Conrad in general, but the lecturer spent the whole term on Lord Jim, and from what I remember, pretty much on just one chapter of the book. That’s probably why I don’t remember the book as a whole, but rather that chapter where Jim spends time with the butterfly collector and studies his cases of dead insects.

What I like about going to a workshop is being shown: Look, you can do it this way. You can make a story out of something like that. Or: Read this; this is how you make a story out of two people waiting for the train that’ll take them to a city in which one of them is going to have an abortion.

We have to learn to live with our own stories, to grapple with the gestation and their coming into being. We decide when to let a story go. We have to learn to listen to our stories. In the commotion of a workshop you can lose sight of your story. Stories get lost in workshops. We have to learn to listen to when a story stops needing us, and when our work is done. But most of all we have to learn to listen to where a story wants to go. It’s a process of letting go and following the story. It’s an inward journey to a place that has no words, and because of that, the tools we have – words – are always a gesture of translation, always doomed to be as close to precise as we can.

One thing I love doing in workshops is looking for the connections between the fragments someone has written, to see if you join Fragment A and Fragment B (and C) in this way, layers can be added to the drama of a story. Or: if you’d just tweak this in one or two of the Fragments, the story will fall into place. It’s easier to do that with other people’s work. You need an outsider’s eye for that. An outsider’s eye is really the equivalent of time and distance, because with enough time and distance we become outsiders to our own stories,. Then we can see – if we’re lucky, if we’re open – the connections between the Fragments that were hidden to us in the initial stages of creation.

Writing workshops are a good place to accumulate Fragments.

Going Far, Then Going Further

In Writing, Writing Workshops on November 7, 2012 at 10:10 am

How far do you go? How far do you push yourself? What steps have you taken recently to go outside of your comfort zone? How much of your work comes easily, not just  the pen on paper stuff, but the subject matter, the places you take your work, the things your characters do. The soul work. How difficult do you make it for yourself so that you think, Wow, I never thought I’d be able to write something like that? How much of what comes out of your imagination, and by extension your fingertips, surprises you, jolts you, leaves you dizzy?

For the past four weeks I’ve been pushing myself. I’ve done things I never thought I could do. Things I’ve thought about but was too afraid, embarrassed, or lazy to take on. I’ve bench pressed. I’ve never bench pressed before, and now I’m doing bench presses with weights that feel dangerously heavy.

“They wont fall on your chest,” he says.” That’s what I’m here for, to make sure it doesn’t happen. Do you feel unsecure?”

“Insecure,” I say. “Yes, I do.”

“Not unsecure?” he says. “It’s not correct?”

He’s Romanian. His English is fluent.

“No,” I say.

“When you learn something wrong,” he says. “The wrong word just sticks in your head forever.”

After bench presses we do more weights, and on days when we don’t do weights we do boot-camp, and when it’s not boot-camp, it’s boxing. I’ve never boxed in my life. Now I’m boxing. Left hook, upper cut, jab.

“Come on, Shaun,” he says. “You can do it.”

And just to hear that voice is like a cheering audience of hundreds.

That’s what writing workshops can be like. When someone pushes you to go places you would never have gone to on your own. Not just maybe, not just eventually, but never. I remember those moments in workshops I’ve been to when I did something I never thought was possible. Simple things sometimes, but things that changed my repertoire, the things one can do with one word after the other. I remember the first time, almost twenty years ago, when the tutor asked us to write a memory in the first person, and then when we were done, she said, now translate that into the third person. What magically happened with the words on the page blew my mind.

And the thing is, I can see the difference. My body feels different. Things get easier. I feel different when I’m walking around. Different when i get up in the morning. Though this morning’s good feeling has a lot to do with the US election results.

There is a moment – it can be as long as five seconds – when I’m standing there in the gym about to do another 20 push-ups after bench presses and bicep curls on the cable machine, and my mind is going: What am I supposed to do now? What is it you want from this body? Can’t we just go back to what we know? We’ve never done this before. Why are you asking us to do this all of a sudden? Cant we just, like, you now, give up?

And I stand there and he says, “No pausing. The whole point is to go from one exercise to the next. No pauses.”

And I do it. I go there. And it’s hard. My arms are shaking. People are watching. (But are they really?) And I’m thinking I cant do any more, and he’s standing there going, Come on, Shaun, you can do it. And more often than not I can do it. And I push myself and it feels good.

So this has all got me thinking about how little I push myself. Not just at the gym, but in my writing. To go where I’ve never been before, to go where it’s scary and dangerous. If you really want to grow, you can’t keep going to what you know. It’s fine if you just want to keep moving, but to actually expand, to have bigger biceps, stronger abdominals. To go to places where you think: This might kill me, the weight of this might come crashing down. But the thing is it probably won’t. There are writers who have gone further than me and have survived. Toni Morrison went there with Beloved. Bret Easton Ellis with American Psycho. Andrew Holleran with The Beauty of Men. It’s about imagining the place and then going there, and going all the way, going until you feel you can’t go any more, then going further.

The Path of Unknowing

In Writing, Writing Workshops on January 2, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Sometimes someone says something you’ve instinctively known is true but have never managed to put into one sentence. While reading an interview with Andrew Sean Greer, I came across him saying that writing is about not knowing and being with someone who is not knowing

I just don’t think you should say anything to a novelist except to keep going, because they don’t know what they are doing so you can’t know what they are doing. They are really just finding their way in the dark.

that more or less summed up what I feel about teaching writing and the frustration I think we all feel, teachers of writing and workshop participants, if we start to think that one of us should know. I have always said in workshops that the process of writing is about bearing the chaos, about living in the not knowing, and trusting that at some point you will know what the novel is about and you will know why you have written it.

When I set out to write the biographical novel based on the life of the artist mark Gertler, I thought my reasons were about being a Jewish artist in the diaspora, and in England in particular, and also that the project was a conversation with the dead, more specifically, my father, and the ancestors in general, perhaps. But what it turned out to be, amongst many other reasons, was also a meditation on suicide and the importance of love in the creative process. This was true for Gertler, but it is also true for me. At the root of it all is the question: How do you want to live your life? And, how much control do you have over the implementation of that decision?

Why I want to write a biographical novel based on David Bomberg’s life is, on some level, a mystery still. I know that it will be about teaching and landscape, but I suspect it’ll be about other things, too.

One of the thing I do as a teacher of writing is to accompany others on this journey of unknowing, and share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Is it my job to try and stop people from making mistakes? Not sure. Is it my job to claim I know and that one thing is wrong and the other thing is right? The best teachers I’ve had are the ones who created a space to explore and experiment and just get on with it, because, really, the bulk of the work we do is outside the workshop space.

I think often people come to workshop hoping to be told, that there will be someone there who knows and they will tell them what they know so that they, too, will know. But no one knows. All we know is what others have done before us and so we can say, oh, x did this, maybe you can look at this. Oh, what you’re trying to do is similar to what y did with his novel, see if that works for you. And those who came before us didn’t know either, but they left something behind of their exploration and struggle to know, and we can look at that.

In her A Letter to a Young Poet, Virginia Woolf writes, in her attempt to address the question of knowing, of putting oneself into a box, a genre, of thinking that one knows what one is doing and what one is:

…once you begin to take yourself seriously as a leader or as a follower, as a modern or as a conservative, then you become a self-conscious, biting, and scratching little animal whose work is not of the slighest value or importance to anybody. Think of yourself rather as something much humbler and less spectacular, but to my mind far more interesting – a poet in whom live all the poets of the past, from whom all poets in time to come will spring…

and again, you come across something that someone says and you are relieved that someone has put into words, in a much better way, what you know, and has saved you a bit of the journey, so that now you can keep on going along the path of unknowing.

Writing Is Dancing

In Writing, Writing Workshops on August 21, 2011 at 10:19 am

There is a natural progression from writing to painting to dancing. Watch the hands move as you write or type and then make the gestures more expansive, make the space you fill bigger, move your hands in the air, pick up a brush, paint, but keep moving your hands, move your body, move your feet and you’re dancing. Sometimes I think that it’s that dancing energy, that fluid movement in the world, the longing to fly, that we try and distill back into our writing, that somehow writing is a distillation of movement in the world, that to writing is the opposite of… I almost said life, and maybe that’s what I should have said.

To write is to stop. To stop moving in the world, to stop interacting, to stop, even, procrastinating, putting off the writing itself, and yes, a lot of energy goes into that, a lot of writing time, or what could be writing time, goes into avoiding writing. Writing is a screeching to a halt; most of the frantic and frenetic movement happens in our head. Sometimes, of course, it is not like that and writing is a relief and an oasis and a good place to go to, even daily, because there are periods in my life – I say periods, but it’s more like a few days; if I’m lucky, weeks – when I turn up to write every day, when it is part of a daily movement, when “Writing” doesn’t feel like a chasm or an unearned luxury or the most terrifying thing to do.

Sometimes we have to live and not write. Some of us are better at writing than living. So when there is not much writing happening, it feels like the whole of life is meaningless, disrupted, fragile. Of course, the only cure for this is to write. Sometimes a workshop helps. I went to a workshop recently and I relished the time we had to write and I smiled to myself when things that I liked came out, whole sentences that I knew I’d be able to use in The Book.

It was a dancing and writing workshop. We danced for a bit, then wrote for a bit, then took a break, and when we came back, we did the same again. I didn’t love the dancing bits. They felt too prescriptive, too much like hard work, but it also made me think how some of the stuff we were doing was, for other people there, quite basic. I don’t follow instructions well, and there were a lot of instructions about breathing and this foot and that foot and left and right. However, when we got to the writing, I was so desperate to write, gagging to write, that my pen didn’t want to stop moving on the page. What a relief to be writing again, what a relief to be able to dance the way I know how, or at least in a way I feel comfortable. To dance on the page, to move around, to be silly, playful, to fly, to pirouette. Writing is where we can do everything and anything, be anything, be everything.

I think life can give us a hunger for writing. The fuller our lives the hungrier we are to write, the more we have to bring to the page. I’m not sure if that’s true. It sounds like it could be. Just having a relationship, any relationship, is enough to feel one’s life is full. I think reading can provide that… a good book is worthy, healthy company. A good book makes us want to go off and write. A good book makes us feel that we, too, can dance on the page. A good book is like a good writing instruction, a good prompt… it gives us instructions without saying anything… instructions by osmosis. At the moment I am reading Dany Laferriere’s Why Must a Black Writer Write about Sex?

Silence

In Writing, Writing Workshops on August 1, 2011 at 9:25 pm

I love the silence of a writing workshop. People around a table writing together, everyone focused on their own page, the movement of the pen across a blank page, slowly filling it. The occasional quiet whistling of nose hairs, the scurrying of the nib across the page, tapping the i, again and again, especially with words like biking and inimitable and invisibility, the tick tick, or the tick tick tick. The pausing to think, the surprise of a word or thought that is unexpected.

Go somewhere quiet.

Somewhere where there is no noise. Somewhere where nothing can disrupt a thought except thoughts themselves. Somewhere where it is just you and the landscape. And the more you write when you are there the further you will go from thought, deeper, until there is just story, pure telling. For a few weeks when I was in the middle of nowhere in New South Wales, Australia, somewhere outside of Nowra, at the end of a nine kilometre dirt-road, I had days of complete silence. Even an hour a day was enough. I think that’s where painters go to paint landscapes, what they search out, that place that takes them somewhere inside, a place in them that is reached when they are in the landscape and all there is is you and what is around you. The past doesn’t matter, and narrative doesn’t matter, and all you want to do is put the trees onto the page, and the cows, and the sky, and the wombat that’s ripping at the grass with its teeth, the kangaroos that come down from the hills to graze at dawn and at dusk. And the light that is changing. And the river that snakes its way through everything.

Here in the city the noise is constant. The whirring of the extractor fans from the pub, the jabber of the whatever it is that comes out of the door of the William Hill betting shop across the road, scores and races and football matches, and the drilling that started this morning – again – because whoever it is who digs up roads is digging up this road for the second time in the past couple of months, and the traffic, although somehow traffic doesn’t disturb, it is the necessary sound of the city, almost a natural sound, like water, or passing comets.

Generosity (and Fishing)

In Writing, Writing Workshops on July 12, 2011 at 10:02 am

Writing is a gesture of generosity, a giving of yourself. The best stories are like shrapnel from the writer’s soul, synecdoches of their being. To write well is to rend yourself open. To paint well, too. To do anything well is to give of yourself. The more you refuse to share of yourself the thinner your prose will be, the shallower. There should be nothing that you would not write about, nothing of yourself that you would not explore. Of course, “should” is a blaming word. Of course, we can never share everything. Aim to avoid nothing. Don’t behave yourself.

(I think that was one of Bomberg‘s downfalls… he did not behave himself. He valued integrity in a country that does not value integrity. He was operating in a culture that has perfected, over centuries, ways to hide integrity, to hide it, conceal it, mask it. The way Bomberg worked and thought and behaved was messy. This country does not appreciate messy, the messiness of the soul, the imagination, the internal workings of the psyche.)

How do you encourage writers in a workshop to be generous? To not be afraid. Especially when there are days – you know there are days like this – when all you want to do is shut down. You want to shut down especially when you know what you have to write about, a story that is about both pain and a wonderful freedom (to be precise: Fishing with your father), but there is something about the fact of an audience that paralyses you. As if the thought of an audience no longer makes the writing your own, no longer makes it private. I need to trick myself into believing that what I’m writing is private, that it’s just for me. Speaking of fishing… it’s a bit like the difference between that time when you’re sitting on the boat or standing on the shore with your line in the water and you’re waiting, those glorious moments of anticipation and your mind wonders off, but somehow that line in the water connects you to the world, to the deep waters, to the inner parts of yourself, to your true wishes. And then the fish bites and you let it run with the line a bit and then the fight to reel it in begins and you are no longer in your own head, it’s just you and the fish, a battle with a creature who wants freedom, and that exhilaration and fight and dread are all transmitted to you through the line and you and the fish are together… maybe not “as one”, but definitely connected.

The creative time comes before the bite. You can’t create and fight the fish at the same time. The fish at the end of the line is an intrusion into the writing process. Writing is the waiting time.

In a workshop you want to create a space where everyone can forget about the audience, forget about the fight with the fish, but know that the fish is there, know that the standing there with the line – the fishing line and the line of the page, the squiggly lines our pens make across the page – is for a reason, and there will be a fish and we will have something to eat and something substantial will be created.

Writing the Tribe

In Writing, Writing Workshops on July 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

What happens when you write outside your tribe? No, what I want to ask is, why write outside your tribe, outside of your people, your landscapes, the parts of the world you are familiar with? A Jew writes about a Buddhist monk. No, it’s more simple than that. A Jewish writer writes about a Christian businesswoman, a Muslim skateboarder. No, it’s more simple than that. A Jewish writer writes about a Christian writer. Why? Is that writer’s motivation a desire to stretch the imagination, to see where their imagination will go if they try to put themself in the shoes of someone slightly different, or seemingly slightly different.

This question rose out of an incident recently in a workshop where a Nigerian male writer (I have created a fictional workshop participant to ensure confidentiality) read out a story about a white middle class woman, a mother, an actress. He is none of these things and neither is his girlfriend. The story was okay, but I knew that if he’d made the story’s protagonist a Nigerian woman, that something much more interesting and complex would have happened. Even if she, like in the original version, was called Jennifer. I wasn’t sure what to say to him about these thoughts, so I didn’t say anything. I focused on other elements of the story. But the question has nagged at me. There was the issue of what he thought were legitimate topics for stories. I had a feeling, though I might be wrong, that he didn’t feel it was valid to make his characters, or even just one of them, someone who was deeply familiar to him. The gender question was also there in the mix.

This isn’t just a question about race. I feel like it’s a question more about the range of topics we assume are available to us, that are legitimate. I don’t know if he wanted to write about Nigerian characters, but hadn’t read enough literature by Nigerian writers, come across enough stories with Nigerian characters in them, to realise his choice would have been valid. His decision might also be linked to the fact that he was one of only two people of colour in the class, and to write about characters so close to him would have felt too intimate a thing to share.

And it’s not a question about whether writers with difference – Jewish writers, writers of African descent, Asian writers, queer writers, blind or deaf writers – should only write about characters from their worlds. It is, though, a question of distance, and a question of connectedness, and a question of depth. How deep can we go into a character that is fundamentally different from us. But then, writing is also about pretending. Don’t we have the capacity to go anywhere with it? Aren’t we – now I risk sounding like a liberal – all in this world together?

Which reminded me of this…

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https://ted.com/talks/view/id/652