Shaun Levin

Posts Tagged ‘lydia davis’

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)


The Furtiveness of Writers

In Writing on September 3, 2020 at 9:18 am

Writers are the most secretive of artists. Writers, on the whole, do not think of themselves as artists. For writers, mess is an embarrassment, a thing to hide. I mean, what kind of writer shows their first draft, or their second, or third? When writers talk to the world – this is how to write a best seller, this is how to write a novel – they talk as if a story is a thing to plan and shape before it is written. Writers, on the whole, speak neither of magic nor of mess. And even when they do, they’re unlikely to show their own.

Imagine a painter not speaking of mess. We expect mess from a painter – an artist! – and we like that mess. On the other hand, writers do not consider the mess of their process a thing worth showing. Granted, the mess of writers is easier to hide than the mess of painters. A few back spaces, tap tap tap, the delete key, and it’s gone, all changed.

For a long time I liked her very much and then less and less. Cold, cerebral, Northern, yet her stories lingered as examples of another thing you could do if you did what pleased you on the canvas of the page. Erudite, funny, playful, serious, playfully serious, someone else said when talking about his own approach to writing. I didn’t think about her much for several years, especially since moving back to the South, the heat, but then a few months ago when the world was sent to its room to consider the error of its ways – bad humans! – she became for a while the perfect company as I stumbled my way back out towards the threshold between silence and telling.

What a joy to discover recently in her book of essays called Essays several instances in which she reveals – elegantly, mind you, not messily at all, for she is not the type of writer to be messy – the messiness of a story’s progress. What she says about the role of the notebook in the essay “Revising One Sentence” is relevant to making transparent the drafts of a story: “A writer’s notebook becomes a record, or the objectification of a mind.”

Also from that essay: “It is nice to feel that there is too much to work on rather than nothing at all…” To be continued…