Shaun Levin

Posts Tagged ‘writer’

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.

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.”)

Wrestling with a Story

In Writing on April 5, 2016 at 8:18 pm

First person or third. I can’t remember which came first. I may have started the story in first and then translated it  into third, or maybe it began in the third person. The story is autobiographic-ish, based on someone I know, someone I was kind of in love with but who wasn’t in love back. The story was a What If. What if we’d taken everything to its extreme. It’s not a story with a happy ending.

A few years ago I finished the story in the third person and sent it off to a competition and it won. I don’t remember what the competition was called and there was no big hoo-hah around it, but it was nice to win – it’s always nice to win – and there was even a bit of cash involved. You’d think that would set the story in stone, that acceptance would be the end of it. But the story never got published – it wasn’t that sort of competition – and it’s hard to let go of an unpublished story.

Print is the final goodbye. I know that’s not entirely true, that writers like Raymond Carver changed stories radically from one printing to the next, say from printing in a magazine to the story’s appearance in a collection, or from one collection to another. I don’t want to spend these twenty minutes doing research, but I think it was a story that appeared in What We Talk About and again in Cathedral. Was it “Small Things” that was also called “Popular Mechanics”? Am I it’s-all-coming-back-to-me correctly?

Now as I write I’m asking myself: Why not try the second person? I’ve always liked the intensity and intimacy of the second person. It often feels like the most creative voice to hide behind when writing autobiographical stuff.

The struggle is… the grappling is… the wrestling with the story happens when the right voice won’t make itself known to you right away; the pen takes a while to get on the scent. You have a story, you know pretty much what you want to say, but finding the voice in which to tell it, is not so easy. Eventually you have to let go. Putting a story into a collection or getting it published is one way to stop wrestling with it.

I had a story like that in my first collection. I think it was called “Everything is Sweets” or something like that. I fought that story for years, maybe close to ten years, it hung around and kept changing , kept not being in the right voice. Bits of the story itself changed, things got added, taken away. I couldn’t tell you what got lost and gained along the way. It got published. I let go.

On some level, one wants a story to reveal itself to you, to tell you what it needs. The way a good lover will tell you what they need to be happy. At the moment, the story is being difficult and it wants me to work out why. You figure out what I needs! It’s giving nothing away, no clues. If only I knew the right words, I could make it run smoothly. Something’s missing and I’m not sure what. Yes, the voice isn’t right, but the voice will bring the right story with it, too; the right voice let me know what’s missing from the story or what needs to be taken out. The voice will tell me the story.

So I continue to wrestle. Or at least that’s what I should be doing, instead, I’ve walked away, gone to other stories and let the difficult story simmer, or sulk, or rest, or get some distance – give me some space! – or whatever it is that I need or the story needs to become clearer when we meet again. Maybe there’s a truth in the story that I’m not ready to hear. Maybe the story has something to tell me that I’m not ready to face. Maybe, and isn’t this the case with the creative process in general, one of us needs to submit. And seeing as there’s only one of us here, that one of us will have to find a way to quietly submit to the story.

Next time: Let’s talk about submission.