“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.