Clive Matson writes from an itch in his body


May 4th, 2011 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized

“Appreciation” is a sweet, inadequate word. And it”s my usual answer when I”m asked why our workshops are productive: “Appreciation is key,” I say. “We appreciate each other”s writing.” Gracious enough and correct for the ambiance. But “appreciation” doesn”t identify the engine that makes the workshops powerful. And doesn”t indicate the scope of the enterprise.

Both got clear this year at my 70th birthday party. During the evening I spoke with a variety of writers who benefitted from our approach. Their writing had become fulfilling practices in their lives, and they were all different: poets, storytellers, singers, novelists, playwrights. They wrote in different styles, too: surreal, satirical, oblique, humorous, direct, lyrical. Could “appreciation” stretch far enough to foster such different abilities?

What I do is simple. I hold mind and heart open far enough that the writing moves me as much as it can move me. To its full extent, in whatever manner it”s capable. Arriving at this sort of listening took courage, but now it”s mostly automatic.

Along the way I needed to discard some notions. Being cool had to go, and the particular way I write, that had to go too, and also a whole packet of dictums. To discard received wisdom about what makes for effective writing — this took courage. The dictums are accurate all right, the problem is they”re too powerful. Too persuasive. Like being revealing enough so the emotion is palpable, or precise enough so the picture is unencumbered. As dogma, these stultify. Whitman exemplifies the first beautifully, and often misses the second. Emily Dickinson can do the reverse. But both writers are great. When we listen well, without preconceptions, we can enter the unique trance the writer creates.

This open frame of mind came about in the natural course of my life. My mother”s lively spirit came out when she talked to people, and she seemed to find everyone interesting, especially strangers. Herbert Huncke, my second father, made his way by establishing intimacy in conversation within a few minutes. I would follow him around, listening, stunned and half conscious, in awe of his talent.

Huncke and my mother would receive a commonplace greeting and hear the energy behind it. They could sense how it led into a private universe. Behind literary dictums, in the same way, lies a vast, unexplored world. When science informs us that 99% of the brain”s activity is unconscious, we see that this adventure has no limits. Those dictums, like greetings, live in the conscious mind, and the source of writing looms gigantic underneath, in the creative unconscious.

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet could be pointing out that no philosophy dreams deeply enough. Literary innovation may seem huge, like Shakespeare pulling dynamic Latinate words into English, but these are tiny fragments of the available universe. Lines of a poem or story may be adroit and praiseworthy, and they are also hints of the huge, energetic place in all of us. A splash from an illimitable ocean. By letting go of preconceptions, we jump out of our rubber raft and into that ocean.
We have a saying in the writing classes, “Embrace your inspiration.” This sounds like putting your arms around something precious. It”s a contradiction, for inspiration is too large to get your arms around. The best we can do is turn, with appreciation, toward our inspiration. Turn in a welcoming manner toward that vast ocean, with our arms spread wide.

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6 Responses

  • Cathy says:

    Nice to hear about your mother and second father, Clive.

  • Dan Brenner says:

    I can’t say enough how the piece about discarding learned wisdom ties into a saying of mine I cam across when I was doing moving work:


  • I really like this, Clive. And I m iss your workshops. I am trying now to piece SUBURBAN SOULS together, and the pieces I did for your workshop were som eof the best–but it needed a whole story, an arc. so that is the challenge.
    This approach of appreciation is so good!

  • Dian Gillmar says:

    I always wondered where your gift for listening came from, and now I know!
    “Appreciation” is the gift you give your students in abundance, and I know a little about how it takes courage to give it as thoughtfully as you do. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Ron says:

    Clive, I’ve never attended one of your workshops but hope to do so someday. Appreciation is not limited to writing, by the way — in my experience, the concept applies to life in general. (And part of appreciation is giving honest, constructive feedback, is it not? Sometimes that can be tricky! But if one genuinely cares about another, it is possible.)

  • Bee Hylinski says:

    This explains so much about what you do and why we all respond so well to it and you. You have given me the great gift of writing and I will never be without you when I am doing it. Thanks, my friend.


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