Shaun Levin

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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, or 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 then another, 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 world) that invites a more fluid approach to the page. In other words: Here’s a page. Now, do whatever you want on it. You can start wherever you want, draw, write, colour in, erase, cross out, paste over, write in circles, in panels. Every page is a series of questions of how to compose it. What can you do when you have more than words at your 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 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.

I knew someone whose handwriting was so tiny, I had to scan their letters to me, then 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 we had other options for an artistic practice, what would they be?

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

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)

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?

The Writer Must Love

In Writing on August 31, 2020 at 8:56 am

The writer must love writing. To really and truly love the act of it, the putting of pen to paper, the making of words, typing or hand-writing. The writer must love books, maybe above all the writer must love books, these things that hold the words the writer creates, the stories, anywhere between the length of a short paragraph or 600 pages. The writer must love their own company as they write, the writer must love words, words and books and their own company as they write. The writer who loves writing forgets themselves for those minutes or hours of writing and all there is is writing. That is what love looks like. The writer must enjoy what they do and what they’re capable of doing on the page. The writer must delight in the acrobatics of their own mind. The writer must be able to make themselves laugh and cry and pause in wonder at what has suddenly appeared on the page. Those words! The writer must love them and be grateful for them for there are moments when you write, when we write that there is not just us, but some kind of apparition from the wonder of our body and our mind and our gut.

The writer must love their own writing. Maybe not every minute of the day, maybe not most of the minutes of the day, maybe for only a few minutes a day, but the writer must get a glimpse of the wonder of what they do. So wonderful to themselves. Oh, it’s nice to see your name in print and to hold a book with your name on the cover, and it’s nice to be invited to read for an audience and be asked questions about things we have written, but if that is all the writer is writing for, then they will soon be found out. The writer must write without ego. I’m not entirely sure what the ego is (note to self: research ego) but if the writer can write for the exhilaration of writing and/or the comfort of writing and/or the surprise of writing and/or the joy of writing, then the writer is writing for the right reasons.

The writer must love writing more than they love being a writer. To write is to be nothing. To write, like painting, like drawing, dancing, singing is to be nothing and yet to have glimpses of the wonder of that nothingness. To be the thing itself, the words created, the movement of pen on paper, fine, okay, fingers on keyboard, because – full disclosure – these 20 minutes are being written on a desktop in the morning, second coffee done, enjoying the morning, enjoying taking these 20 minutes as I sit at my desk with one leg on the table, my earplugs in, the mind gently blocking out everything else on my screen (quick, go to Enter Full Screen. That’s better.)… The writer must love… The writer must… What I really want to say is:

The writer must love words and what words can do.

The writer must make time to write. There is always time. I know people who get up at 5 in the morning so they can write before their kids wake up. How do they do it? I don’t know. But they do. I admire anyone who can write for those 20 or 30 minutes that their child is asleep mid-morning. I have so much time in which I don’t write. The writer must see the time in which they don’t write as necessary, too, for writing. The writer must love writing enough to turn up every day, even if for 20 minutes. The writer must find time for the thing they love, which is writing. The writer need not be full of love for the world in order to love writing. The writer need not be glamorous or reclusive or shy. The writer must have at some point in their life a glimpse into the transformative and uplifting (find a better word) power of stories, putting words on the page, and the sensation of holding a book with the fingertips of both hands.

Thoughts on Submission

In Writing on July 27, 2016 at 11:29 am

ClickHereToSubmitI’ve been submitting a lot lately. It’s fun to submit. Always? Often. Often it’s fun to submit. For a while I stopped submitting. Novels, stories, essays, flash fiction. The lot. I’d had enough. Submission wears you down. You know what it’s like: You have these stories you’re sure are right for them, so you send them to them. Or you have a few stories that have been lying around for ages – years! – and they need a home, so you risk it. You aim high. The New Yorker. The Paris Review. Or you aim a bit low. High or low, sometimes neither wants your submission.

Look long enough at a word and you start seeing its other meanings. In the world of writing we seem to ignore the submissive side of submitting. We go for the proactive aspect of submission, not the masochism of the sub-dom world. But it’s there. It’s there. We fear and loathe and are fascinated by submission submit. When it works, it can be transformative. We crave the acceptance of the one we submit to. Especially when our submission is honest and true and in compliance with everything they’ve asked for, then the rejection is bitter and demoralising and makes us wonder: Am I being a good submitter? A good submissive?

What does it take to be a good submitter? How do you choose the right people and places to submit to?

At least when you submit to a journal, the rejection feels less personal, but when you submit to an agent – it’s personal! They don’t like your work. They said no. They’re just not into you, and that hurts. Of course, we move on. Eventually we move on. Recently my friend M submitted to an agent whose attitude he liked. The agent was enthusiastic and dedicated and pushed their authors into the spotlight, got their books written about in all the major papers. My friend wanted that agent to be his agent. He didn’t love the authors the agent represented but he loved the agent. The agent said no.

“I’m not surprised,” he said to me. “I don’t even like the writers they like.”

“You’re rationalising your hurt,” I said.

“They should have loved me,” he said. “I’d have been good for them.”

Submit to places and people who love the work you love. If you don’t love the work they love they probably won’t love yours. Obviously that’s not always true, but mostly it is. Another friend of mine was determined to be published in a certain journal. He liked the vibe surrounding that journal. Cool people hung out there. My friend read their back issues and worked out what these people were into. He wanted to be amongst them, for his voice to be amongst theirs, so he studied how they did it and wrote a piece he was proud, albeit a piece he wouldn’t have written if he hadn’t wanted to be in that journal. He wrote it for himself but he also wrote it for them. It’s a delicate balance, he told me, and one that he enjoyed trying to maintain. They liked the piece and said yes and now he is amongst the cool people.

“It’s not the first time,” he said, and told me how back in the late 1990s he’d written a story for a porn magazine and the people at the porn magazine had loved it and paid him for the story and told him to send more; his fee would increase incrementally with every story he published with them. He tried, but he couldn’t do it. The kind of story he sent them wasn’t in a style he could sustain. It didn’t come naturally. He’s also the kind of person who, if you say yes to him, if you say I love you, he freezes up.

All writers keep getting tangled up in the Venn diagram wheels of exhilaration and devastation.

Find the places you want to be published in, absorb the kind of work they like, then write something for them. Write something for them that you’re going to enjoy writing, that will challenge and educate you. This experience will expand your range as a writer and you’ll get a kick out of it. Find the strength in being a sub. Submit to places that will help you grow, places that will get your name out there, places that will push you to write outside your comfort zone. Pick your play partners carefully.

We all want to be rescued from the desert islands of our writing desks. Don’t submit just because you want to be rescued. Nobody likes a clingy bottom.

Submission is the relinquishing of power. You are not relinquishing the power to define who you are. Do it in a way that feels integral to who you are. If something doesn’t feel right, trust your intuition and don’t do it. On the other hand, do it and see what happens. It’s not like you’re being tied to a St. Andrew’s Cross with the whip of an evil dominatrix lashing against your back. It’s only one story of many. Submit and see. Submit wholeheartedly. There are hundreds of places out there to submit to. As the Hebrew saying goes: Le’kol sir yesh michseh. There’s a lid to every pot.

Submit in order to let go of stuff. The more you submit, the more space you make for other work. Submitting is a way of letting go. One of my yoga teachers has this thing at the end of a session when we’re all lying in corpse pose and at some point they’ll say, let go, let go, let go. At first I wanted to laugh. What a hippy thing to say! What a cliché! But then I grew to like it, to just do it, to try and let go, let go, let go. Because what I noticed is that once I let go, I felt stronger when I emerged back out into the world.

Submit in order to let go.

And remember. Writing. We’re in it for the pain. We’re in it for the joy.

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.

Time for a New Book

In Writing on April 3, 2016 at 2:51 pm

Not until you start putting together a collection can you know what it’s about. In the beginning, the motivation is the idea itself. A book. A new book. It’s been a while since the last one. You have, in a variety of folders on your desktop, various stories and essays that have been published over the past 24 years. You start by creating an inventory, the first draft of a contents list. You create a new folder and copy into it all the pieces you’ve already published, minus all the stories that appeared in your first collection ten years ago. The truth is, you finished a novel and sent it out to a million agents – at least a million – and to some publishers, and 10% of them sent back their no-thank-yous. The rest, if one was the waiting type, one would, eighteen months later, still be waiting for. You figure that in the meantime you might as well put together a collection of stories and essays.

At the new bookshop up the road, you stumble upon Hanif Kureishi’s Love + Hate: Stories and Essays, and you take it as a sign that the two things (things?!) can go together. You fell out of love with Hanif Kureishi about ten years ago, but this book has revived some of the love you’d lost.

So, once you’ve packed the folder with your stories and essays, you print them out.

By you I mean me. I.

I’m surprised how many there are. I give myself a pat on the back. Well done you. Well done. Not bad at all. Already I’m feeling better about things. The piece I like the most is a gratitude piece, a list piece about the writers and other humans who’ve made me the kind of writer/human I am today. The essay was published in a collection three years ago. It feels like a good place to start. The call in the call and response. The response being the rest of the book-to-be.

The New York piece comes after that, then the piece set in Abney Park Cemetery, then another one and another one, and a theme starts to emerge. A book that was going to be a collection of twenty years of sex writing, is turning into a book about immigration, London, Tel Aviv, rootedness, rootlessness. The pieces seem to flow from one to the next. The book gains its own momentum.

Shaun Levin edited page

From an essay on Shakespeare and Co Bookshop in Paris. Originally published in Hebrew in Masa Acher, a travel magazine.

You read through the book. You edit as you go along. From a distance of 10 years, 5 years, a couple of years, it’s easy to be ruthless, enjoyable even. Look how sharp I am. I feel focused, clear. It’s like you’ve been training for this. It feels strange not to be tormented by doubt and the chaos of creation. Cleaning things up is fun. Being streamlined.

Then you get to a story that refuses to comply.

To be continued.