Shaun Levin

Almost There: Joy and Fear

In Writing on February 27, 2018 at 3:32 pm

There’s a book I’ve almost finished but I’m doing everthing I can to avoid it. The manuscript is on my desk. I know exactly what I need to do. The ending needs to be written. It’s a happy ending after a lot of turmoil and loss and violence. Something good happens at the end and I know exactly what it is, and most of it is written already. If I sit down, it’ll be done in 3-4 hours. It really will. All I need to do is sit there with the mansucript and with my keyboard and go paragraph by paragraph and write down the story as it happens.

I know what happens.

Is it fear? The fear of the completed project. The fear of having to put the book out into the world. The fear of saying okay this is what I’ve been working on for the past 2, 3, 6 years, do you like it? But those feel like the cliched answers. It’s not fear. It’s something else. It’s the power of fiction, I think. The overwhelmeing rush you get when you create a scene that is completely fiction, a creation of your mind, a fantasy you have of love and joy and meeting The One. At the end of the book he meets The One. The story feels so real, the happiness is so real, and I guess because it’s at the end of the book there’s no room for negativity to snake its way in.

Maybe the fear is joy. It’s not fear, it’s joy. Me and joy. We have a complicated relaionship. I have always resisted the endings of projects. When I was part of a professional supervision group, they bribed me with chocolate cake as an incentive to finish my first book. They didn’t actually bribe me, I made them promise to buy me the cake if I finished the book. Now I’ve bought myself a sofa, so I owe it to whoever – me! – to finish the book. The sofa must be earned. The sofa is a gift for finishing the book.

It’s not joy, either. Not fear, not fear of joy. What do you do with a book that is done? You look after it. You find it a home, you do your best to make sure people like it, you find people to like it, you show it to people, you say nice things about it, big it up, feel proud of it, keep your doubts to yourself, make sure it gets the best care possible. If you finish a book, your capacity for support is tested. How well do you care for your books? Some people care for their books very well. Some people will do anything for their books. Some people are embarrassed by/for people who’ll do anything for their books.

The truth is that I’m not sure why I’ll do anything to avoid finishing the book. How about I shut up now and go finish it. A few more pages and I’ll be ready. See you on the other side.

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.