Shaun Levin

Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

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?

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.