Shaun Levin

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

What Is a Writer?

In Writing on November 3, 2020 at 4:05 pm

What, then, she says, is a writer?

He likes to think he takes the generous approach and tells her a writer is someone who writes, who puts pen to paper and keeps doing it regularly. The truth is he’s surprised by her question, as if he’d never considered it, never been asked. The more common questions are: Can anyone be a writer? Have we all got a book in us? Can writing be taught?

A writer, overwhelmed with the stuff in their head, reverts to the page to vent, as in: to let off steam, as in: to decompress, as in: to let out what has been bubbling up inside (for generations). A writer needs the page in order to think deeply. Joan Didion said something about writing in order to know what she’s thinking. And Flannery O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” A writer knows, or likes to think, that with writing will come sense. A writer knows there is no limit to stories.

A writer does their thinking on the page. A writer prefers (“is excited by,” would be more precise) is excited by details more than abstractions, stories more than actions, a rhyme every now and then, when we’re not sure what to… A writer is never satisfied. A writer wants more. A writer knows that after a story comes another story. (There’s no such thing as writer’s block.) What comes after a story? Another story. Who said that? Elie Wiesel? Sholem Aleichem? He saw it once in a book of Jewish storytelling.

A writer is saved by words, by other writers, by the stories of other writers, but more than the stories, by the sentences themselves, the voices of other writers, even just one writer. If you have one writer you keep returning to because they save you, you’re a writer. A writer delights in their own performance on the page, is surprised by it. What? I wrote that? Impossible! A writer, like a good cook, knows when their food is delicious, because it is delicious to them, and also knows that what they’ve cooked up is not entirely of their making. Writers know there is some kind of organising principle in the universe, and we work to try and move with it, make sense of it, and offer up glimpses of it on the page.

Conversations with the Page

In Writing on September 30, 2020 at 9:27 am

Me and B were talking about our changing conversations with the page, and by page I mean canvas or any blank space before you, waiting. Waiting. What do you say to the blank page? How do you approach it? What kinds of conversations are you having with that space before you? By conversations I mean the parameters in which you operate, the limits you set yourself, the ways you choose to make contact with the page. With writing, the options are dictated by the activity itself, or at least the traditional way we approach writing. That is: you start on one side of the page – in our case: the left – and you keep going along a line until you reach the other end of the page, then you come back to the initial side and start again.

Line after line,

one line after the other,

until you’re done for the day or have said what you have to say. Those are, to a large extent, the facts. That’s just the way writing works.

But what if you approach the page differently? These are the conversations I’m having at the moment as I embark on the making (creating, composing, writing, drawing) of a graphic novel*, a genre (horrible word) that invites a more fluid approach to the page. In other words: Here’s a page. Now, do whatever you want on it. Start wherever you want, draw, write, colour in, erase, strike-through, paste over, write in circles, in panels. Every page is a series of questions about composition. How will I compose this page, now that I have more than words at my disposal?

In a world that has become overwhelmingly digitised and where writing is done primarily on a keyboard, a device, a laptop, various ways except by hand on a page, the graphic novel offers a space where I feel I have no choice but to create by hand. It’s a genre (horrible word) that favours the movement of the hand on paper. I want to say something about the intimate relationship with the page, the different means by which you can fill it, the different ways you can feel it.

I knew someone whose handwriting was so tiny that I had to scan their letters and read them as jpegs I could enlarge. There’s a kind of intensity and drillingdownness to such small writing, a concentration that makes me think of how, as a kid, I used the thick lenses of my glasses to burn blades of dry grass on those hot days in M’s garden in Summerstrand.

Tiny words burn holes into pages.

Using words as a drawing tool is one step away from drawing. If I could really draw with ease and skill, I mean really and truly draw, would I still return to words? Would I rely on words? If you could be another sort of artist, what would you be? Dancer? Painter? Singer? Mime?

*This is where you can follow the making of my graphic novel.

Awkward Waiting

In Story, Writing on September 27, 2020 at 2:28 pm

This is the continuation of a previous post.

The agent’s friend comes home and he has one more day to stay in the house with the agent’s friend, husband and their three children (not four).

“Are you hiding in the garden shed?” she texted.

And just as he’s staring out the window, a hummingbird – he sees it, at first he thinks: butterfly, one of those big orange butterflies he’d seen the other day when he and his schoolfriend had been sitting in the garden, rusty orange with brown spots on its wings, but this is a hummingbird! a small bird – is it a hummingbird? hovering over the flowers, beak inserted into a purple flower, moving from one to the next, taking what it needs to take, hovering mid-air by flapping its wings, staying like that the way a kid might doggy-paddle to stay afloat.

For him there is an awkwardness to waiting. He’s awkward around waiting. Waiting makes him awkward. It’s awkward – waiting. Waiting? It’s awkward. It’s an awkward kind of waiting. Awkward waiting. And so he waits for his agent’s driver to come and pick him up for lunch.

“Half an hour,” the agent had said (it wasn’t). “He’ll bring you to the restaurant.”

Then it fills the house: a screech. He has never heard anyone scream so loudly. It’s as if the agent’s friend is possessed. A shout physical in its violence, a roaring, lashing out. It is ugly. He is sitting in the kitchen waiting for the driver when the scream tears across everything. Like an earthquake, no, more personal: a punch. Am I remembering something? he thinks. Was I shouted at with such – as if a monster had been unleashed. Awful. And afterwards the man had come downstairs as if nothing had happened, as if a monster had not been unleashed. The child had tried to defend himself. The other child had been in the kitchen and while the man shouts and the child tries to defend himself – but I, but I – the other child walks around the kitchen in a state of shock, waiting for it to be over.

The man had shouted things that he does not now remember, but it had something to do with the child pushing. “See what happens?” he’d screamed. “You push and you push and then look what happens.” If the man could hear himself he’d be shocked. It is, he thinks, the kind of shouting to call social services for, but this man is the agent’s special writer, a man who brings in a lot of money for the agent, probably more money than any of the other writers, and definitely more than he’ll ever earn for his agent.

What the agent’s friend doesn’t know yet is that a video of his teenage son is going viral online, a video of him yelling abuse at another driver and being filmed by that driver’s passenger. The words are sexist and arrogant, misogynistic, entitled, something so ugly that again he cannot remember what was being said, but what he will remember is the boy, a teenager of about 16 or 17, leaning out the window, arm on the side of the car and gesturing to his own car, referring to its price – was it 100,000? half a million? – the boy was out of control, on some kind of drug. But maybe not, maybe the teenager was as sober as the agent’s friend had been when he shouted “you push and push” at his child upstairs.

On the flight back to London he talks to the woman next to him who is flying to Rome. They talk about Barcelona; she was there in June with some old college friends. She’d stayed on for a couple of days after they’d all driven down from the Basque Country. He thinks: What have I learnt from this trip? What have I gained or lost or been through? Where is the character development? Soon I will be back in my life: the gym, work, love There’s a lover who will be happy to see me.

Whose Love Child Are You?

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 25, 2020 at 9:13 am

When I think of her I think of her and Alice in that apartment in Paris. Alice in Paris. Alice in Paris painting, painting, Basket panting, waiting. I see them walking the poodle, having Picasso over, come over, Pablo, come over Hemingway, so they all came over and the. I think of her sitting, big solid sitting like a matriarch, widowed, skirts and chins and hands, he said, like a Russian peasant. Immigrant hands, he said. How entertaining she is, having people over, how lucky we are to be invited. Gertrude Stein on the one hand.

Him on the other. Crossing America, coast to coast, maybe stopping in Denver to see Carlos, aka Alan. He, too, speaking French, him and Gertrude plotting in French in the salon on rue Cardinal Lemoine (but that’s Hemingway’s place, he realises when he awakes from the dream. The Stein-Toklas residence is at 27 Rue de Fleurus). Him drunk and in love with a girl called Mary Lou. I think of him hunched over a typewriter. In her case it’s Alice typing up handwritten pages, slightly high on hash cookies (recipe available in The ABT cookbook). With him there is the enduring image, I’ve told this story so many times I sound like a drunk, at City Lights Bookstore going round with his beret gathering small change so he can go out and buy wine for all to drink.

Most of what I know about him, what is remembered, is from the Ann Charters biography, my first guidebook to being a writer. Jack Kerouac was the first writer I read about in such detail and so I wanted to be like him, the kind of writer I wanted to be. Will you be my writer-daddy? Diana Souhami’s biography of Gertrude and Alice was my other guide, always her and Alice, never her alone. That’s how to be a writer, with a loyal companion who loves you blindly, openeyedly, warts and all. And all that matters is writing, art, making sentences, weirdly, drunkenly, uninhibitedly.

Who are the writers to whom your soul first clung for guidance? Who are the (dead) writers who parented you, showed you the way, let you tread in their footsteps?

But we are fickle, changing parents as years go by, weeks change, days, sometimes we have others, but they are the ones who endure, though sometimes we forget, the way we forget a dead parent who out of the blue, such beautiful blue, clear sky blue, reveals themself to us, or we do something and realise that yes, we’re doing this because of them, this way of writing, this way of being a writer, this fantasy of writerhood, this ambition, action, opening of the heart in a certain way before a certain thing, yes, I inherited this from Gertrude, this I inherited from Jack.

These are my parents (today): Gertrude and Jack.

Inside a Book

In Writing on September 23, 2020 at 8:17 pm

I met a man many years ago who gave up on writing. At the time, I’d known him for 4 or 5 years and had seen him try to write and succeed in writing and complete a novel. When he gave up he had been writing for many years but with limited success and an overall sense that he was neither enjoying the process nor able to achieve the kind of work he was striving for.

This was many years ago, maybe 15, and I remember being both astonished and awed by his decision, his announcement that he’d no longer be a writer. The struggle was over. He may have said that he wasn’t sure what he would do instead but that he did know that he would never write again. I might be exaggerating about the last bit. I have no idea where he is now nor whether he ever returned to writing. To be honest, I don’t remember his name (although we do have a mutual friend), but I do remember the moment when he said what he said in that large room in Soho at that dining table with the London light coming in through the windows, muted by the general grey of the city. I remember the relief in his voice, in his face: at last he was free from some burden that had clung to him for too long.

Astonished the one could just give up.

I have not always been loyal to writing but then writing has not always met my needs. For many years I relied on writing to fulfill my needs. Maybe we were co-dependent, maybe I asked for too much, maybe writing asked for too little in return. And so I drifted away for a while and found myself doing other things. I played with other art forms – photography, illustration, bookbinding – and because they were not “my” art forms and I was an amateur, there was no pressure, no bar, no history. All there was was now and the joy of the experiment. There was what there was in the beginning of my writing life: only the writing. No expectation, no assumption of an observing eye, a reader. Everything I did was for the writing itself.

And suddenly, colour mattered, colour was available. Composition on a single page mattered. It was possible to put a small image on a large page. Each page was a canvas, is canvas. Take a photograph and put it on a page and it’s possible for the page to be done, complete. You don’t have to fill it with words, the most difficult, demanding, and exacting of mediums.

I think what I’m exploring here is the question of what constitutes a book? Or: What are the options available to us when we’re faced with a blank page, even a single page? And: At what point are words not enough? At what point is the use of words too much? And when they’re too much or not enough, what are the options available to a writer? What are the other performances you can do in a book? What can you do inside a book that will excite you to keep making work?

Who & What to Include

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 21, 2020 at 11:27 pm

Watching the documentary about Fernando Torres on Amazon Prime got me thinking about what makes a good story about a single person, whether as biography, autobiography, or the tale of a fictional character. One answer is that the story is not primarily about them. Even Cinderella is not really all about Cinderella: there’s the ball and the sisters, the prince, his search, the glass slipper, there’s the fairy godmother and the pumpkin, there’s a lot going on and Cinderella might be present at most of it, but what makes the story a good story are all those elements that are not her.

In the documentary, there’s the team Torres plays for, there’s his country and the other countries he has lived in, there’s the Atlético Madrid Stadium, which is now a ghost (demolished), but was still visible from my apartment when I moved here a year ago, his coaches, his wife, his parents, his past, images of him growing up, him on the beach in Japan, his manager, sports commentators. The story of any character is made up of the stories of others.

How do you tell an autobiographical story and not make yourself the focus. Tell the story of your lovers, the story of letters received, objects held onto, gifts, documents, places you’ve been, but tell the story of those places, turn the camera to face away from you, who are the faces looking at you? What do others see? A kind of: Enough about me, tell me what you think about me. But in a way that makes the other characters the focus, the ones who are not you.

Find the reason that the story is being told. What has made you stand here and open your mouth to sing that aria? In the case of Torres, the present-day timeline – the reason for telling the story – are the three days leading up to his retirement from football.

What serves as the backbone to your story? What’s the duration of the framework, the temporal framing. There’s probably a technical word for this, but that sounds technical enough, perhaps too technical, because really the question is: at what point are your starting your story and by knowing the timeline, you’ll have a sense of where the story will probably end. I guess in the case of most biographies the time-frame is a life, birth to death, but if that person is alive, maybe the end point is a moment of rebirth into a new chapter that is beyond the ken of the book you’re now reading.

You think the story is about one thing but actually it’s about something else. You think it’s a story about survival, but really it’s a story about self-realisation and living an authentic life. The time frame is the achieving of that, or the promise of that, or the beginning of achieving that. Put into words what you think your story is about, because then you can begin to question your assumption and explore if the story might actually be about other things, too, and those other things could bring more stories that’ll add layers to your work. Maybe it’s a story about courage, about not being afraid. Maybe it’s a story about fear.

In the end Torres realises that… No. Watch it. It’s a good lesson in structure, variety, and the scope of a story.

A New Book, Perhaps

In Writing on September 20, 2020 at 1:34 pm

To begin a writing project is to say “yes” to the unknown. To begin a book is to embark on a journey with no end in sight but with the faith that there will be one. The journey of a book is by its nature a journey with an end. Let’s begin again. A book project is a journey with an end. Maybe that’s where we have to put our trust, in the fact that there will be an end, that we’ll start this book and if we keep going there’ll be an end, and after that there’ll be another book. But we want to be consumed, like in any relationship, we want this to be the most important thing, the one that matters the most.

To begin a book is to choose this book. Of all the other possible books to write, I choose you. Why this book? The promise, the breadth, the ratio of known to enigmatic, the range, the fun we could have, the allure of a writable book. Yes, I could write you and it could be fun. You will being mystery and comfort to my life. I choose you.

A book is a mystery and a promise. A farewell to something. An exorcism.

We take on a book because there is something nagging at us and we’re not sure why, or we want to tell a story and there’s an answer to something we sense we will find there. There’s something there to discover. Also: It’s a test (not the precise word, but close enough) to see if it’s possible to hold this story in the form of a book. And the journey will be the journey to finding the right form. We like the challenge, or the idea of a challenge, the possibility that it will improve the quality of our lives, whether through the joy of doing it, the possible rewards – financial, emotional, romantic – or, again, the exorcism, the opening of the way to other books. Those motives and others are there. Maybe it’ll take the writing of the book to discover what it was that compelled us to write it.

Jewish New Year

In Story, Writing, Writing Exercises on September 18, 2020 at 11:02 pm

His agent’s daughter invites him to a party in the afternoon. He says he will do his best to make it but that he isn’t good with crowds, especially crowds of new people. New people and their children, although he does not say the latter. She comes to pick him up after the party, after everyone has gone home and only she and her boyfriend and their kids remain, the two sons still in the pool. The older son is wearing a wet suit. A friend is staying over, a young boy who is a whizz at ping-pong and with whom they play a brief game of doubles: the writer, the agent’s daughter’s boyfriend, and the older son.

Earlier that day, him and an old school friend had met up at LACMA, walked around the Japanese Pavilion, then gone for lunch at a place just up from the museum complex – a huge restaurant where they ate oversized plates of Caesar Salad.

His agent introduces him to a writer who is doing well, and the following day he and the old school friend go out for dinner with the writer. The writer comes to pick them up from the agent’s daughter’s house where they’ve been having afternoon tea, or the local equivalent, or the local equivalent of sherry before dinner. They drink hibiscus coolers. In this tiny world of interconnections, the agent’s daughter and the writer who is doing well have had an affair and so are jovial with each other.

Jovial is a word his agent had used at a lunch that week, to which his wife had said: “You never use that word.” To which the agent had said: “I should use it more often. It’s a good word.”

“I’ll pass,” the agent’s daughter says, when they suggest she joins them for dinner, him, the old school friend, and the writer who is doing well.

“Suit yourself,” the writer says.

“I’m going to have to redefine my narrative,” he thinks to himself as he sits by the pool the following morning, giving a big thumbs up to this way of life.

A friend had written to him: It’s about saying yes more confidently to what you want to be doing and the more you do that the more you drown out the distraction of those things you would otherwise be wanting to say no to. The friend calls to say that someone had said yes to her, a university department that had just hired her to teach a class in fiction. This yes-saying is contagious, he thinks. It feels good to be in the company of others who are being said yes to.

The cleaners come that afternoon to work on the house he is staying in, three women, perhaps a mother and daughter and the daughter’s friend, or perhaps three friends. The man who owns the house, a writer of movies who, too, is doing well and is now on holiday with his husband and their three children (or was it four?). The women dust the shelves, mop the floors, wash the clothes left by the couple and their children, climb a ladder to wipe the lampshades.

He is hungry but wants to wait for the women to leave before he eats, before he goes back inside from the garden and pool to make himself a snack. Later that evening he’s expected at his agent’s house, where, for a Jewish New Year dinner, various members of his family have been invited, along with other writers he represents.

“I feel imprisoned in this house,” he’d said to his friend.

Stranded in the suburbs.

Under house arrest.

When he was at school, he’d read a book my Raymunda Hawa Tawil (was that her name?) a Palestinian fighter and politician who had been under house arrest for a very long time. The book was green and had a picture of her or of her house on the front cover.

The cleaner says big houses are easier to clean than small ones, although he cannot remember the reasons she gave. She used to work for Will and Jada Smith. She’d been to Spain, driven with her husband from Sevilla to Portugal, then stayed for a day in Ireland where she didn’t like the cold. She’s been in California for 26 years. Tomorrow, she tells him, there won’t be much traffic when the Jewish people have their holiday. She also works for a Catholic lady from Switzerland who is married to a Jewish guy.

At the agent’s house for Rosh Hashanah dinner, all types of herring: Danish, cream, chopped and some chopped liver, too, which he does not eat. The herring he eats. It’s the kind of herring he ate and liked as a child, always there on the table at holiday meals: Passover, New Year, and probably there to break the Yom Kippur fast, along with a glass of milk and soda water. Present at this dinner are: the agent’s adult son and his young girlfriend, and the son of this son, whose mother is not the girlfriend. They all talk about family, about this one and that one, and how he, the writer, has written a book that is going to be a great success.

The conversation does not linger on his book. It shifts to the crisis in Syria and to stories of shoplifting: the agent’s son had stolen chocolates in Paris, the daughter used to take money from her mother’s handbag. Tomorrow is Friday, then the next day will be the day he goes back to London. He will be tired and will sleep on the plane. When he gets home, he will try to stay awake and if there is sun, he will sit in the sun to synchronise his body clock. He will go to the gym and then the following day he will go to Liverpool, then come back from Liverpool into Yom Kippur, after which he will return to his new book, the one he has just started writing.

What journey are you beginning now? Write about the journey that is starting in your life now.

from notebook entry dated 3 Sept. 2013 (aka Early Utterances from a Writing Life)

Meandering Thoughts

In Writing on September 17, 2020 at 1:40 pm

Many notebooks filled and forgotten, held onto, rarely revisited. What of those filled and unfulfilled notebook? Now, starting a new notebook with a new type of pen, one with memories of early school days. Throughout the 70s we wrote with fountain pens, maybe not dipped in ink, but definitely with cartridges, blue, and I see now that perhaps cursive is a result of writing with a quill or fountain pen. It’s easier to write in cursive, to keep the pen on the page, the nib wants to cling to the page.

It’s time to return to those filled notebooks, more than 20 years of notebooks, maybe chronologically from when I began to keep them in earnest, London in the mid-90s, or maybe a more random approach, a notebook from here and there. Working backwards from now doesn’t appeal. I like the idea of going back to the start of my life as a writer, and by writer I mean someone who writes all the time, someone with something to show for the daily showing up to the page.

The pen flows easier with each line, the grip on it… but I’m still not sure if it’s a friendly writing tool, conducive to coherent writing, the fountain pen wants to slide, wants letters to merge, to keep going and going, to write words like antidisestablishmentarianism, a word Jill and I read in the dictionary back in the late 1970s and me being surprised she could work out its meaning by taking it apart. Books and words and reading were important in my family, although formal education was not highly regarded. The educated uncles were not considered successful, as if there was something lacking in people with a vast education, not something to look up to, slightly shameful, something that disprepared you for life. Looking good was important, being lean was important, going to the beach was important, working hard and making money was important. High school was all you needed + a way to make money by selling stuff. In that sense, I’ve lived much of my life with a sense of failure, that what I have accomplished has not given me the capital to live an independent and unrestricted life, and I have become one of the lamentable uncles, those with talent and learning, but lacking in the tools to make it in the world. Like anything we claim about ourselves, this isn’t entirely and always true, but it is on certain days and in a certain light.

Have occasional diary entries: Early Utterances from a Writing Life, I, II, III, IV, X, XI. Like this:

Saturday, 11 March 2006: Not sure how I feel about this notebook. Too shiny, too white – maybe I just have to get used to it. Must set up more workshops, contact festivals. Add reviews to the website. Snow and blizzards expected in the North tonight. Slobodan Milosevic died in his cell today.

Monday, 13 March 2006: “I knew it would,” you said, and you ate some more.

He kept throwing his head back and making the kind of noise you make when you’re not sure if this is pleasurable or painful, but you know you don’t want it to stop.

“You’re delicious,” you said.

Because you thought it might be sour, tinny. You feared your lover would taste of rust. You’d tasted your own blood once, and it was like licking a tin can, something cold, like steel, as if that’s what you were made of.

By the end of the night there was a pixie hat of green left on the pillow, so you picked it up by the stem – almost weightless – and placed it by the bedside, tiny drops of pink water, very far from blood red, trickled onto the white surface and sat there like echoes of a lake.

The Smiling Face

In Writing on September 15, 2020 at 9:40 am

Speaking of death… I’ve been thinking about the courage it takes to write fiction, the faith one needs to disappear into a story so that you can write it. Distraction comes into this, too, because to write fiction we must enter into a dream state, but one in which we can still keep writing, undisturbed. Even now as I write I’m trying to let go into whatever I’m thinking but when I say thinking I mean feeling because to write is to feel, to relinquish analytical thought and merge into a character we’ve created so that we are them and not us observing them. Even if that character is the narrator, that narrator is not us. To make fiction we have to be what we create, much as when we are dreaming. We are whoever we are in the dream, not entirely us, some fictional version of our waking self, but also not entirely not-us.

For the duration of the writing, the character is us. It’s a feeling. You have to feel that what you are writing is true, that it’s not fiction, that whatever dreamscape you’re creating is as terrifying, exhilarating, fascinating, all-consuming as any dream. It takes courage to go there because like in any dream, who knows if we’ll ever wake from it. At least for the duration, but in the end we do, we will.

The analytical eye needs to stay out of this, the I that assumes a reader, that anxious eye, the censoring one. Eye, I, whatever. In the dreamworld of the unconscious, subconscious, whatever, in the dreamworld of the gut, where words are sounds, not letters, they are the same. Eye is I is eye.

The fear of writing fiction is the fear of disappearing, of going down, down, down into ourselves, not necessary into hell, but not not-hell, and to have faith (that word again) that when we re-emerge there will be a smiling face facing us, or we will be remembered (I know you!), our beloved will be there and they will recognise us and want to go out with us for dinner and a walk afterwards. Over and over we disappear and hope that each time we can disappear more and for longer. Each time we will have more faith. It’s a fix, a thrill, to disappear into these dreams of our own making and still – if we’re lucky – return as if nothing has happened, the way, more often than not, we return from dreams. How easy it is to respond to emails after you’ve spent an hour in this other world. “Easy” because you’ve survived disappearing and all that anxiety about the beloved and hell and the smiling face has evaporated now that you’ve emerged from the underworld, singing. Not madder, but milder. Who knew?