Shaun Levin

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

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?

What’s the Conflict?

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 13, 2020 at 9:26 am

My conflict with the world is noise. The jettisoning of bottles into recycling bins, a lift cranking up and down, cleaning trucks at 4am, neighbours banging front doors shut, an entrance door to a building slams, dogs bark at pitches so high they can be heard from miles away, a person on their mobile phone, traffic lights go beep beep beep for 20 seconds every minute. Sounds in the distance, sounds nearby. A bomb whistles, a siren starts up, a warning.

What’s your character’s conflict? Their quarrel, struggle, collision, discord, battle, opposition in the world. What is it? What’s their mountain to climb? As in life, it’s easier to identify the conflicts of others (don’t we love to give advice?). The absence of conflict is easier to spot when the story is not your own. Where’s the conflict? is not a question I ask myself when it comes to my own stories. Just writing the story is achievement enough, having overcome the voices that want to silence, censor, shut us up, insist we behave. Behave yourself! Getting to the end of a story is to overcome a conflict.

Some days, just getting through them, is a triumph.

Is that enough for fiction, for a story, for the things we write? Sometimes it’s enough just to tell the tale of an event, an experience. But is it? Sometimes the conflict is the pull to be silent, to be distracted. Sometimes a story would rather you kept quiet. Every story is a win over the gagging order. But is it? At some point, ask yourself, where is the conflict, what is the conflict, because the more we know about the conflict in our character’s life, or at least at this particular point in their life, the more we can bring to the story, of the character’s past, the concrete, non-symbolic hurdle they must overcome, the secondary characters there to help and hinder.

To identify the conflict is to identify the core around which a story can be made. My Spanish teacher, E., suggests we read an article about Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book I read 30 years ago, and talk about some of the themes in the story, the main theme being what makes a story (or a life). Words like umbral and periplo and acudir a la llamada are now part of my vocabulary. Threshold, journey (not just the viaje type), and heed the call are good words in any language. E. says something that stays with me, something about our main conflict being death, that our primary conflict as human beings is with death and its inevitability, and it gets me thinking about those noises that are a distraction, the power of distraction to silence us, our battle against distraction, what often feels like a losing battle, and how that silencing is an echo of the greatest silencing of all.

Expectation and a Sharp Turn

In Writing on September 10, 2020 at 7:03 pm

The story is in the expectation. The drama is in the expectation, the anticipation. Let’s say you’ve been for a run and it’s been a good run, not the best but definitely better than you expected and you’re feeling good and the music in your headphones is good and you’re thinking of a cold Coke (Diet) and how much you love this city and you’re making your way from the park along the river towards your house, crossing onto the path that runs parallel to the basketball courts and this delivery guy on his bike is cycling slowly towards you and makes eye contact, he from behind his mask and you from behind yours and you like how the mask hides and reveals a face. All one needs are eyes and a bit of skin. You turn after a few metres and he’s turning his head, too, cycling and turning his head and you both keep doing that, and there is expectation. Yours: that he’ll turn and cycle back in your direction, but he doesn’t, although he does keep looking even when there’s 100 metres between you (he’s almost at the bridge), so you walk towards him. You love this city even more now, the heat, the openness, the feeling that yes, you can meet guys on the street and maybe he has food to deliver and you don’t want him to be late. You could jog towards him but you don’t want to seem too eager. Let’s say this all happened. That you walked towards him and saw him without his mask as he looked at his phone and lifted his head and he wasn’t unhandsome and he was tall and lean, lean-ish, and he had good skin, nice and brown and smooth, and lifted his mask back over his mouth and nose, and when you were at his bike you smiled and he smiled, let’s say his name was Antonio Manuel. The expectation was still there, the possible scenario, like that time you met the Brazilian guy in the pool at a hotel in Frankfurt and he came to your room. The expectation was a repeat of something along those lines. Let’s say you spoke about food and deliveries and he asked you what you were doing right now and you said nothing and that you lived across the road and he said something else about food and you said what type of food? All this time you’re smiling and touching him gently, because the expectation and the drama were all there and you kind of knew where this was going, and even though he wasn’t the handsomest or the most appealing, you were liking the drama of the experience, the story of it, until you told him what you wanted and he’s like you’ll have to pay for that, and you say, with money or some other way, and although he didn’t respond to that, or maybe he did, it was clear that it was money he was after if what you were after was him. So although you declined his offer, another time, you said, and you kind of regret declining, because there would have been another kind of story to tell, but the story you have to tell now is good, or at least the insight it gave you into how the drama is often in the anticipation, a story is the recounting of an expectation, and also: the consequences of a sharp turn, the unexpected. The consequences now being: a meditation on the pandemic and its impact on people’s lives and survival, also on: being older and in the eyes of some people being the type who would pay to be with someone, I mean: you, you who had just been running so well and looking good in your new Asics running shorts, yes, you. Also: how none of this would have happened if you’d stayed at home and done your regular YouTube workouts.

I’m not sure this is true of all stories, but I think stories are the recounting of a character’s grapplings with the consequences of an action, whether their own or someone else’s. Ask yourself when writing a story is: in what way does this story grapple with the consequences of something that has happened? What is the relationship between the elements of the story and the thing that has happened, how do they sit in relationship to each other?

Page, Head, Mouth

In Writing on September 9, 2020 at 8:59 pm

Speaking of unfinished thoughts, I’m having one at the moment. Something to do with what’s on the page, what’s in your head, and what’s in your mouth. Language, and the relationship between what you see on the page, what it sounds like in your head, and what actually comes out of your mouth. I’m at that stage in Spanish when I see things on the page before I say them, like I’m first writing them down (in my head) then articulating them, not always but a lot of the time. Sometimes I stumble on a “c” or “z” or “d” when they should appear in the mouth as a”th”. I say to my Spanish teacher that I think it happens because I see the letters on the page before I say them, the words are first words and only then are they sounds.

My Danish teacher says it’s important with Danish to learn the sounds more than the written words, to listen to what words sound like, because really there’s often no connection between the way you say a word in Danish and what it looks like on the page. With Arabic I stumble because it takes me a while to read what’s on the page, each letter a discovery, an uncovering. I’m wondering if that’s why I never enjoyed reading in Hebrew even though my Hebrew is pretty much at the level of a native speaker. What’s on the page doesn’t sit well with me, doesn’t come easily, which isn’t entirely true. An unformed thought.

My sense is that this is connected to writing, to what we do when we write a story, that there is the story on the page, the intention in our head, and although we don’t actually speak what we write, there is the spoken version of our story, the story being recounted to the people gathering round to listen. Reading out loud is a great editing tool. What doesn’t feel write in the mouth will not feel right in the head, particularly the head of the reader. When we stumble over words as we read them out loud, something in the reader will stumble, and even though they may not register this at first, too many stumbles and they’re lost. They give up.

I don’t like to stumble when I speak Spanish, when I read Roberto Bolaño and a strange word appears, when I can’t catch the words you’re saying. I want fluency or nothing. There’s something here about the relationship between writing and speaking, writing and telling, telling a story on the page, in your head, to the people sitting there with you. The extent of our vocabulary defines the shape of our stories. The extent of our emotional vocabulary defines the depth of our stories. What are you saying? I don’t know what I’m saying. What’s he saying?

My Spanish is better when I’m speaking to people I like, or more precisely, when I’m having conversations I like. The words form with greater ease. I forget that there’s a page and that the words have spelling. Spelling, spell, spiel. It’s harder to talk to the pharmacist about probiotics (I stumble) than it is to my Spanish teacher about Wittgenstein or horchata, even though I know nothing about Wittgenstein. It’s easier to write about things you love and that intrigue you, than it is to write a utilitarian story. The thing is, it’s not always easy to know what’s easy for you to write. It changes.

Enjoyment is not always about ease. Discovery. I’m thinking discovery. I’m thinking of worlds opening up when you learn those first phrases in Danish, in Arabic, when you hear whole sentences in Spanish and you think, a few months ago I would not have understood what he just said.

What are the stories to which your heart opens with curiosity and wonder? The stories that make you grateful to have a pen in your hand? What are the stories you speak as if they were your natural tongue? By speak I mean write.

Finish Stuff

In Writing on September 8, 2020 at 10:36 am

Work on what you have and work on finishing it. Don’t start something new, okay? Just what you have. Finish it. No new projects, no new stories, no new material. Finish. Short, long, whatever, get things done and out the way. Enough accumulation. Too much accumulation. Enough. Work on it, struggle with it, get it done and out the way. Done. Move on. Next. No new things. All those half-finished, just-started, what-a-great-ideas. Get stuff done. Even this reminder, I mean, you could be working on that piece or that piece or that piece or that piece. It’s not like there isn’t work to do. Ignore the distractions. Ignore what’s pulling you away, buttonholing you. Don’t let it. Say no to. Say no to new stories. No to new projects. Go for what you have and get it done and dusted. Out of the way. Sorted. There is not enough sorting going on on your desktop. Sort it out, mate. Get it done. Dusted. Dust off what hasn’t been dusted off for far too long because you’ve been starting new things, always excited by beginnings, embarkings, the runway and the take off. Flight is fun. The thrill of beginning. Commitment issues. Commit to a story and get it done. Commit to a book and get it done. You’re very blaming. This voice, I don’t like it. Maybe there’s another way of going about it. Maybe there are prizes to be given, gifts to be received. Maybe you need that hotel room to get things done, or that time, buy some time to get things done. Maybe you need that walk. Maybe you need that takeaway. Get that delivery. You deserve it. Ugh. Very complicated.

What is writing if not finishing. Writing means finishing. Finish it before it finishes you. That’s what the coach says when we get to the finishing round. It’s called the finishing round because it’s meant to finish you.

But I don’t want to be finished, coach.

Things get easier when you realise there is no pleasure in finishing things. You’re not in it for the finishing. The joy is in the getting there. What they call: the journey. Ugh. The joy is in the writing and the struggling. Not the finishing. To finish is to say goodbye. You finish it and before you know it you’re the carer of the story that has been written (by whom?). To finish is to say okay you’re done you’re not mine but you’re mine and I’ll look after you and help you make your way into the world. I have your back. We’ll find you home. To not finish is to hold onto. To not finish is to say nunca te dejaré. To not finish is to say, mm, yes, I like this co-dependency thing we have going. But really, to be honest, things are always getting finished. A little thing here a little thing there, but when there’s so much unfinished stuff there is so much clinging to you, and boy, do stories cling. Finish me, finish me. Pick me.

So instead of finish something, I wrote this. Which I haven’t yet finished.

Some Writers

In Writing, Writing Exercises on September 7, 2020 at 12:25 pm

Some writers write at home. Some writers write in hotel rooms. Maya Angelou had a regular hotel room in which she wrote. Hotel rooms are good places to write. Some writers write in cafés. At some point you realise what type of writer you are, what your writing routine looks like, when and where you write best. Some writers are stricter than others. Do the most important thing first, is what some writers say. Do the writing first. Some writers start the day with admin. Some writers start the day with a run, or a walk around the block, or push ups. Some writers do push ups in their pauses. Some writers procrastinate. I’m not sure that’s a legitimate way of being a writer, but if things eventually get done then maybe it is. Some writers work on one thing. Some writers always have more than one thing on the go. Some writers feel bad about procrastinating. Some writers beat themselves up. Some writers give themselves license to do whatever they want as long as they get things done. Some writers like sunshine and some like the early hours of the morning. The wee hours. The owl hours. Some writers are night owls. Some writers wake up at 3. For some it’s a pm 3 for others it’s when others are going to bed. Some writers run a lot, like 10k a day. Some writers need a view and others need a wall. Some need silence. I know a writer who needs a lot of silence. I know a writer who gave up, said they were done, that they were tired, that life was too short. Some writers just keep going because what else is there to do. Some writers like to talk about their writing. Others wouldn’t dare. What you working on? Oh, you know. Some writers will tell you everything. Some writers will tell you nothing. Some writers walk, and others stare at the ceiling. Often these are one and the same writer. Some writers are competitive, always keeping an eye on what others are doing. Other writers, to be honest, don’t really care about things like that. They’re just happy to be writing. That’s what they tell themselves. I know writers like that. I know them intimately. Others used to be competitive or became more competitive with age. Writing is not a competition. Some writers like all-consuming projects. Some writers write in short burst, little stories that resonate. Some writers plan. Some writers love the company of other writers, others like the company of other artists, all sorts of artists as long as they’re not writers. Some artists don’t get writers. Some artists look down on writers, think that what they (we) do is easy. Some writers know that writing is the hardest art, that there is no art form more difficult than writing, that writing is the only visual art where you have to rely on words, on one colour on an off-white background. Some writers don’t know that writing is a visual art. Some writers are frustrated visual artists or dancers or something that is not writing but when they write they embody the painter or the ballet dancer or the acrobat that they dream of being. Some writers write as a second choice. Some writers don’t know what they’d do without writing. Some writers think that writing is a curse, their cross to bear, and they love it and they hate it and it causes them so much pain and so much joy that they’re not quite sure sometimes how they feel about it. Some writers sleep well at night and some have insomnia. I know many writers who have insomnia. Some writers are anxious people. All writers are anxious people. It is not possible to be a chilled-out writer. Some writers think that writing is a way to alleviate anxiety. Some writers rely on writing to make a noise after many years of feeling silenced, a whole childhood of feeling silenced, or being silenced, because some people should be seen and not heard or not seen at all, and some writers have gone through things that if it wasn’t for writing might have drowned in that thing or the consequences of that thing. For some writers writing is fun. I love writing. It makes me so happy when I write. Is a complicated statement. Because it’s true. Some writers wish they could be writing all the time, that wouldn’t life be great if all we did was write, which goes back to that hotel room where all you have to do is write and sleep and lie in the bath and can you bring me a burger and I’ll have the continental breakfast today and yes I’m ready for my mid-morning coffee and can I have a slice of that carrot cake you had last week. Okay, no problem, the chocolate cake is good, too. Some writers are not fussy. Some writers are fussy. Some writers have a talisman, a ritual, a candle to light, background music to play, a desk, a pen, a type of paper. Some writers don’t write on paper. Some writers type. Some writers work straight onto the computer. Some writers would not be able to write without a notebook. I know a writer who does everything first in the notebook. Some writers work. Some writers plan. Some writers go into it not knowing where they’ll land up. Some writers know where they’ll land up but they love it anyway. Some writers love the process. Some writers are in it for the ride. Some writers don’t like the end and arriving at their destination because really what it means is that a whole new journey will begin and they must now get to the end of this one and stop.

Exercise: Write until you find a good anchor phrase, something that can be repeated at the beginning of each sentence, then keep using it, over and over, until you run out of steam. (See also: “On the Importance of Having Unread Books on Your Bookshelf.”)


In Writing on September 6, 2020 at 10:55 am

I imagine the larva or the pupa or whatever it’s called that’s there in the cocoon. I imagine it getting flashes of what it will be, how it will emerge, but then the image disappears and it keeps nibbling away, pushing against the screen of the cocoon, the boundaries that will eventually give way, and the larva glimpses – so quick, a flash! – a world without limitations, but the limitations are the story taking shape, the constraints of a story not yet known or known but the shape not quite there, the story in its entirety not quite there. I feel the physicality of it, the details, I have some of the details, but as I sit in it, this cocoon of a first draft where there are things to nibble on and feed off and also the promise of what lies beyond, like the larva knowing in its DNA that there is something beyond, something meant-to-be that it’s been working towards.

So what if it’s not the precise metaphor but it’s the right one for now just let yourself live in this metaphor the cocoon of this metaphor and keep your eyes on the keys and stop looking up and just feel the cocoon of the first draft around you and yes, you just got a flash glimpse of what the story could be, what it could expand into, and the beauty that would be there like a fancy dress to fit itself into because the larva is the larva but is also the butterfly and the first draft is the first draft but also the final story. The final story is inherent in the first draft, the beginning of the larva shuffling about starting to nibble its way out into the spectacularity of colour and flight.

The larva trusts. The larva doesn’t give up midway, never looking back at its life as a caterpillar. Is the caterpillar the first draft? Ugh, don’t get entangled in the metaphor. Stay with the cocoon. Stay with the story and what it will be from now on, not what it was not where it’s been, stay with the story as it is now, what came before doesn’t matter, what it took to get here doesn’t matter, what matters is the cocoon of this first draft and the larva/pupa of it, the cocoon is the veil between the first draft and the story as it will be in its colour and flight.

The story is about a spine and a path and the thing that runs through our lives, my life, his life, your life, all of them being aspects of the me in the story but me as I was 40 years ago, 30, 20. Maybe that’s the story: versions of a character over time, and the search for things that stay with us, not necessarily the things inside, the who-we-are things, but the things we do (but they, too, are who we are), that we dedicate ourselves to or that have the allure or the whatever that keeps us doing them. Like running. In my case running. It’s about running away and about movement and doing and the illusion of doing and about a legitiate reason to move in the world alone although times when I’ve run with someone, a friend, a lover, a relative, have been wonderful and a different type of running, and running in a group very briefly in London when two of the personal trainers at the gym set up a running group and we’d all go for a run in Finsbury Park or Clissold Park. I’m not a pack animal, but maybe running is a way of calling out for a pack. What of the butterfly? How does the butterfly feel about the herd instinct? A herd of butterflies.*

That’s the joy of turning up for a story, the way it keeps offering more and it’s up to us to enjoy the moment of a story, this moment of it trying to take shape, rubbing against the walls of the cocoon because it has just had a glimpse – flash! – of what lies beyond, the blue skies, the air, the smell of spring or the expanse of its wings, that’s what it is, too, the unfolding, the movement from a first draft onwards is a process of unfolding, of opening out, of oxygen, of breath and breadth, letting the story take up the space it has been created to assume.

* apparently, a flight of butterflies, or a rabble of butterflies, or a flutter of them.


In Writing on September 5, 2020 at 8:43 am

For instance, you might be a writer with much time on your hands, able to dedicate a significant chunk of your mornings, afternoons and evenings to writing, but if an idea comes to you at 11am or 3pm and you don’t have a notebook with you, the idea is likely to evaporate. Having a notebook available at all times is an invitation to use it, a confirmation that writing is integral to life. Sometimes it’s nice to stop at random moments and record what’s going on. To sketch.

Last week I went out for lunch and forgot to take my notebook with me. I hadn’t been out to eat since March. The closest I’ve come to a café in the last five months is the occasional delivery from my favourite pastry shop. This pandemic has reduced the number of opportunities available to a writer to stop and stare. Never mind stare, stopping is a dangerous activity. To linger on a park bench is to invite who knows what into one’s respiratory system. Not that some of us (me) don’t run through ambling crowds and workout in local parks without any barrier between our insides and the outer world.

Anyway. So I went out for lunch. It was delicious, but without my notebook, I had to rely on the paper place-mat, a large sheet of white paper with the café’s logo and a list of select items from the menu (if only I could find that paper place-mat now, I’d tell you what was there. There was definitely arroz negro, which is what I had for my first course, and then some beef stew with chips for my main, and a chocolate tart for dessert. All delicious and because delicious writing was facilitated and I wrote about the story I’m working on, a story about running, runs in different parts of the world and possible ways I could structure the piece. It was like being a bit messy, writing there on the mesa, on a place-mate, on the table, eating and breaking off bits of bread – go easy on the bread – and sipping from the bottle of water included in the menú del día, all for only €11 so that everything conspired to feel like a gift, an invitation to create, to ease the appearance of words on a page, so it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have a notebook, though I did have a pen, and there was the paper place-mat waiting to be written on and I accepted the invitation, ate my food with gusto, felt the openness of the world and the expansiveness of it, how accommodating you can be sometimes, world, how well you make what we need available, even and especially when we don’t have our regular tools with us to make writing happen, you’re there to provide us with what we need. Our father who, etc.)

So I was saying.

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)