Shaun Levin

Archive for the ‘Writing Workshops’ Category

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…



Integrity and Trust

In Writing, Writing Workshops on May 10, 2011 at 10:24 am

I like to write at home. I can go for days – maybe three – without talking to anyone, just immersing myself in the world of what I’m writing. I do go out. I go to the gym, to the supermarket, to the greasy spoon down the road for a cheese omelette and chips. But I don’t speak much to people. I like being around people without having to talk to them, and when I do talk, I like the exchange to be light. “I like your coat,” I said to the woman next to me the other night at the Barbican. That was enough. She said thank you. I’m glad we didn’t talk more, because then I might have heard that she liked the play, which I thought was homophobic, unforgivably so, but the audience seemed to find it all quite amusing.

I like to feel immersed in the work I’m doing and if I’m feeling angry about something, I want to bring that anger to the novel, to the page, to my notebooks. I want that anger to be mine for a while. I don’t want to dilute it with conversation. Writing is an expression of the things we hold onto, the things that won’t let us go. The danger is that we keep repeating a story, compulsively repeating a narrative that clings to us, probably because of trauma. I’m not just talking about autobiographical writing, or at least not only of it. Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating the same story, from story to story… Sometimes I feel that from story to story I’m repeating the same story. That’s why I think therapy is a great thing for a writer.

If a writer wants to change and grow, really wants to evolve, then their writing will keep evolving. I think there is often the fear that if one goes into therapy there’ll be nothing left to write about, as if all that writing is is a sublimation of unresolved issues, the acting out of repressed dramas – because really that is what writing is about – as if all those things were finite, as if it were possible to get to the bottom of one’s self. It isn’t. But it is possible to get stuck on one narrative.

At some point I want to say more on why I don’t like English writers. This is a culture that uses language as a thing to hide behind, not as a tool to express one’s honesty, to try and put into words what one is feeling. There are very few English writers whom I read, if any. English writers use language to entertain, to humour, to mock, to show off. They use language to be fake. There is no attempt to be honest. In the years that I edited Chroma magazine I came across voices that were using language in an honest way, raw and brutal and lyrical. The way American writers do, and French writers. What drives them is integrity.

How do you teach integrity? How do you encourage people to be open and honest and vulnerable in a workshop? Sometimes I think it would be easier if people read my work before they came to a workshop, so that they could see that I am trying to do just that in my own work, to be vulnerable and honest, and yet still give a sense that I have control over what I do, that there is aesthetic judgement going on, that the work has been crafted. But most people don’t read the work of their teachers when they come to a workshop, at least not if the person isn’t a mainstream writer with a novel on the bestseller list. I don’t think people realise what kind of damage a writing teacher can do to one’s desire to write, or to the faith, however fragile, one has in one’s own work. And yet people are willing to trust their writing to people they know nothing about.

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.

The Language in Our Mouths

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 24, 2011 at 11:40 am

The language we write in is not the same as the one we speak in. It may seem to be the same, it may have the same words and the same grammar, but it is not the same language, in that it is not the same material, because its function is different. To write authentically, in a voice that is uniquely our own, we have to try and capture the words as we learnt them first, unfettered, our first encounter with language, the language we spoke when we were coming into ourselves, into who we were and our understanding of the world. We have to write first and foremost in that tongue that was spoken to us and which we spoke for the first years of our life. That is the language through which the world came into being, in which objects and feelings and landscapes were first named, and that is the language we must write in. Thos are the words that resonate with the first discovery. (Just as writing by hand puts the body in touch with the first time we learnt to write, with that first discovery of what happens when we put lines and squiggles on a page and they mean something.)

This is always a difficult issue in a workshop situation when working with people who are new to English, but still want to write in English. Even though they are not fluent in it, nor fluid. You have to feel that you can swim in a language, that you can move with fluidity and without thinking. All you have to do is move your limbs and you can move. Once you can swim you cannot remember what it was like not to swim. So it is with language; very rarely do we remember where and when and under what circumstances we learnt a word. Not the word “very” nor “rarely” nor “do” nor “we” nor “remember”. I would question what is it that people who want to write in a language that is not their own are escaping from. What do they want to avoid in their own language that writing in another language would not confront them with. A language that is not our own can only tentatively and incompletely and unsuccessfully take us back to the formation of our selves, to the core of us.

And yet, with that, writers are people who remember their fascination with language, especially if we have grown up with more than one language around us and witnessed how each word opens up our universe. I remember phrases in Afrikaans that I learnt from my father, questions I asked him about them, and that moment of the word being translated, and once it is translated it is mine, too, not just belonging to those who know. I remember the phrase “tussen die boom en die bas” from my father and “al dran aapn goue ring, bly hy nogn lelike ding“. And I remember words from Agnes, the woman who worked in my father’s house from before I was born. The woman who was referred to as the maid or the nanny or the help. But no different, I sometimes think, though thirty years have passed since I last saw her, than a mother. I remember listening to her speak with Maud or Cecilia or Johnson, any one of the other women and men who lived with us in those years that I grew up in South Africa, that land of multiple languages.

And I remember the fascination with English too, for somehow, even though English was the language I grew up in, there was always a sense that it was a second language, a language from elsewhere, that belonged to other people. But what language was really mine, I didn’t know. Maybe Hebrew. Hebrew was the language of the Jews. No one could question my link to Hebrew. There was nothing incongruous in my imagination of me speaking Hebrew. I learnt to read it by the time I was thirteen, by the time I had to stand up and sing my haftorah at the Summerstrand shul, but I did not understand what I was saying. I couldn’t open a Bible or a book and understand what the words I was reading meant. After two years of living in Israel, I spoke fluent Hebrew.

It helps not to feel entirely at home in a language, to maintain a sense of wonder and surprise. But we also need to be able to swim in the language we write in, to not think about it when we are putting our senses onto the page, to not feel tripped up by our limitations. We cannot let language come between us and expression. We have to be able to use language to express the things that have nothing to do with language, like small and taste, like a landscape, like the sound of chewing. Language in our mouth. Our tongue.

(But if a writer acknowledges their limitations, their being at odds with the language they have chosen to write in, a language that is not theirs from birth, could that then add integrity to the voice?)

Forget the Self

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 16, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Writing is a spiritual act and the writing workshop is a spiritual place. The place where we write is a place where we need to feel completely open and completely omnipotent and completely protected. If we feel threatened or in danger we cannot write the stories we are meant to write, the stories that want to come out of us. It is not about love, but about safety. Perhaps we need to feel unloved in order to write (or to believe in God), and perhaps we need to feel threatened in the world in order to write, but the place where we sit down to write needs to be a place of complete safety, even if that place is just in our head. Who are the writers who wrote in unsafe conditions? In prison, in the death camps, on the run, while suffering domestic violence. Where did they go in order to write? What was the place they went to in their heads? Is revenge and rage a protective shield? Solzhenitsyn wrote A Day in the Life after he’d been released from the gulag.

Because we all feel threatened and unloved and imprisoned at various times of the day and in different times in our life, we come to writing to feel safe, to feel safe in a way that will allow us to explore, to go deeper into ourselves. And when I say “we” I mean those of us who want to be writers, those of us who have something that compels us to tell a story, rather than just those of us who want to write. It is the writing tutor’s job to honour that and to create a space that acknowledges the yearning that people bring to the situation, to create a sense that there is room for everyone.

I think that is what we need to do when we sit down to write, on our own, alone in a room, to allow every possibility to appear on the page, to be open to surprises and the unexpected. When I am running a workshop, in those two or three hours of writing, I want to be in a space where all that matters is writing, in a headspace where all that is important is writing and the writing of the good story, the good line, to go to a place that is entirely one’s own, that is not in the mind, but in the body, so that it feels like you’re pulling stories out of… that you’re threading stories out of your body, from your flesh, rather than from your mind. We have to be able to write from our body, to bring our chest and our guts and our genitalia to the putting of pen on the page.

The process is not about the head. The head might come in later, in the editing and rewriting. It has to be like dancing, like music, like singing badly in the shower, to come to it with your whole body, unafraid, unguarded.

But what if I go mad?

Then you are lucky.

Writing is probably not going to make you mad, but if you can have those moments in your writing when you feel you are going mad, when you feel that everything is unravelling and yet you can still keep writing, if you can keep writing through that, then you will write great work. You will touch on things that only you can touch, because they are from your body, from inside you. I want to say: I do not allow computers and laptops and ipads in my workshops. I want to say: When you have written for ten years by hand, then you can write with a laptop. You will not discover a true intimate and authentic voice if you don’t write by hand. To write on a computer involves the head too much. You cannot forget yourself and switch off your thinking faculties when you’re working on a computer, especially not in a group with other people around you. A computer =is not an intimate thing, it’s not just you and the page, there are too many distractions. Page numbers and word counts and whatnot. And the internet, the little icons that tell you things and threaten to lure you away from your body and from forgetting yourself. The forgetting of the self is necessary in order to write.

Led by Language

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

In a workshop. I think of these sessions as workshops, as a place to explore, rather than an arena in which something is taught, which the word “course” implies, as if there is a way, a course, a right way and a wrong way. People bring a lot of anxiety to the beginning of a workshop. An an expectation to be told. To be told how to do it and also to be told they can do it. That they have what it takes to be a writer. A lot of people say at the beginning that they want to find out if they can do it, if they’ve got what it takes. Very rarely do people say that they want to find out if they want to do it. Some of the anxiety at the beginning is the fear about what others will say, that everyone will be better than me, that I’ll make a fool of myself. How many of us have had our creative endeavours ridiculed or rejected? How many of us where told we didn’t have what it takes to paint or draw or write or dance or sing. And then what happened to that joy, that joy we once had, and that desire to sing, to paint, to dance. To write. Some people bring to the beginning of a workshop a long history of wanting to write and not doing it, or doing it in secret.

There is a lot of enthusiasm at the beginning of a workshop, an urgency, a willingness to dive in. With that, often comes a hungry desire to learn, to try new things. Many people are open to the magic of writing, to doing things with words they didn’t know were possible. It’s exciting to witness people enjoying their own writing. And yet, that enthusiasm can also come with an ignorance of what it means to write, what it takes to be a writer. Often it is those people who come with the greatest enthusiasm who do not return to the workshop after the first session. I think it opens up something fragile inside them. It opens up a great yearning and makes it visible to them, and to everyone else. They witness their own hunger and either realise how insatiable it is, or that it is murkier than they thought it was. That somehow there is something perverse in this desire to create, to write. Maybe they see that the desire to write isn’t about writing, but about something else, and they prefer to remain with the desire to write, rather than to actually write. Because to write is to touch on all the other things that want to be brought to the surface, to make themselves known.

And then there are those people who come to a workshop just to see what it’s about and they keep going, they write and write and write, and change their lives to make room for writing. Some leave their jobs. They go to more courses, a residential here and there. The beginning is full of unknowing, but also, often, an exhilaration that yes, I am finally doing it.

At the beginning of a workshop I like to take it slowly, to do some work in pairs, in small groups. I like people to think of the workshop as a safe place and a fun place. I like doing playful exercises, for people to see that writing is about playing, that with all the seriousness involved in embarking on big writing projects – like a novel, for example – you have to be prepared to play and to be open to the unexpected, to let language lead you sometimes, to let language take you into story, to let words derail you, to realise that there are words being sent up from the unconscious because they are e beginning of a thread, a rope to hold onto and pull and see where it carries you.

What “The Reader” Wants

In Writing, Writing Workshops on April 12, 2011 at 3:49 pm

Why do people come to writing workshops? For fun, for the company, to learn some techniques, tools of the trade. But they also come because they can’t do it on their own. There’s something about the process that feels unmanageable or unknown. We all need reassurance, someone to tell us we can do it. After fifteen years of teaching creative writing, I still love going to writing workshops – to learn new things, to see what other writers are doing. I like reading my work out loud. I think that is another reason people come, so that they can be heard, so that they can have an audience. One of the hardest things to manage when you’re writing on your own is that for a lot of the time, you have no audience, you’re working in a void. You are your only audience. You are the stage and the performer and the cheering crowd. How does one get used to that? There’s something unnatural about it. We’re not supposed to play on our own for so many hours in the day, to create just for ourselves. But for long stretches of the writing process you’re on your own. You have to forget your “audience”. You will create your best work when you write only for yourself.

Don’t bring the reader into the process! The “reader” (or what we think the reader is) can be a damaging factor if brought into the equation, especially in a workshop situation. We all have our own readers in mind, the reader we think of, but the reader I think of and the one you think of, the one anyone thinks of, is never the same. What would it be like to exclude talk of “the reader” from the workshop, and to talk only about the story or the book that wants to be written, the book that you as the writer want to write, the book that wants to come out, the book that must come out, and if we can locate that book and trust ourselves to write it then we have to trust that there will be an audience for it.

I don’t like it when writers in a workshop talk about “the reader”. I think it’s a way of not talking about the book they want to write, a way of avoiding looking into themselves, as if the answer is in what the reader wants. And what if we do create an image of the reader, bring that “reader” into consciousness, make that reader explicit, then would it make it easier to write, would it be a way of focusing the voice?

An exercise: Write about who your ideal reader is? Where are they from, what do they like reading, what do they know, what do they want to learn? And then write a story especially for them. Think about what type of reader you are… write about it, write about the type of reader you are… what stories to you love? crave? If you had to be given the ideal book to read, what would it be? Then write it.

It sometimes seems that people talk about the reader in a workshop because they think they’re doing somethingwrong, that if they could just work out what the reader wants then they’d write that very book. I say: what is the book you want to write?

Note to self. To read more about: What motivates people to write, what is the compulsion to tell a story, the desire to be heard. What is the compulsion for story? Does everyone want to tell a story? Does everyone want their story to be heard? Is it a human compulsion to tell a story, to tell our story, to tell one’s story, the story of one’s tribe… And is that compulsion the same no matter what story we tell… some want to tell their story through fiction, some through autobiography.

Be open to the story that can change. The antidote to trauma is letting in another story, a story that is not your own.