Clive Matson writes from an itch in his body

Writing and Vulnerability

November 24th, 2011 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized

“Do I have to?”

Just that quickly this elegant, confident-looking woman backs off, the moment I announce that we’l be reading our writing aloud. The raw, corrosive fear in her voice surprises me.

“You don’t have to,” I reassure her, “but we’l twist your arm just a little.”

New writers are often shy, but, since this lady mentioned she’s an actress in classical theater, I assumed she’d be at ease on the very small stage of our writing workshop.

“Do you do Shakespeare?”

“Yes,” she says and pulls her jaw back in a frown, as if she’s not happy where I’m going.

Some of Shakespeare’s women run through my mind. Feisty, smart, principled, and at the same time expressing a range of emotion quite fluidly. Like Juliet, who’s beside herself with desire and frustration. And Lady MacBeth, what about her? How strange she must feel, haunted by one drop of blood.

“Have you played Lady MacBeth?”


“Now there’s a frightened woman, aware of her family’s murderous intrigue. ‘Out, damned spot! Out, I say.’ She’s frantic with anxiety.”

I slow down, looking her in the eye, and set up my punch line. “Correct?”


The punch line: “Do you think reading your work aloud could be worse than playing Lady MacBeth?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

I build the strongest platform I can, and she destroys it with one syllable. Now I’m at a loss.


“Lady MacBeth is someone else.”

She waves her hand in the air as if shooing a fly, then sighs and pats her breast.

“What I’d read would be me.”

And she’s right, of course. That is the rub: your very essence, your heart and soul, are likely to be revealed. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve been on stage, perfecting the art of being someone else. It’s just not easy to maintain any safe or serene or confident or grand image of yourself. And your writing will somehow broadcast the truth, the very truth no one has seen before: who you really are. Your frailty, your stupidity, your funkiness, your fuzziness, your general unworthiness, how poorly you write – and oh, how touchy, how very vulnerable you are to any word that could be construed as criticism.

Does this sound troublesome? It’s the short list.

One writer, as she prepared her novel for an editor, dreamed she was in the wings of a theater. While waiting for her cue, she wrapped the curtains around herself and suddenly she realized she had no clothes on. How could she go on stage without a costume? She was stark naked. She woke up, sweating, from the nightmare.

Bob Dylan’s line, “A poem is a naked person,” applies as well to any creative writing. The good news is, in workshop, you don’t have to take your clothes off. The bad news is, it can feel worse than if you did.

(With help from Linda Cohen, Kalaena Pertofsky, and Lynn Sugayan.)

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6 Responses

  • Thank you. This is the naked truth. I’m going to quote you on facebook – my 16 year old granddaughter is writing poetry and she’s been sharing it – gutsy.

  • Mark Weiss says:

    I hope you make it to the Alden Van Buskirk, “LAMI@50″ event, Tuesday, Dec. 20,2011 in San Francisco.

  • A little differently, not an actor . . . but maybe an actor visiting my life. What in the writimg says this is who I am? What if nobody hates it? What if it just sits there in all its technical glory and shows thats all there is? Thats not having a voice which is the most frightening fate possible when I’ve had so many years to find it.

  • Adele Mendelson says:

    Feeling vulnerable?

    1. Go slow, be shy. Create a fictional character who is a disguised you and then say only as much as you’re willing. Even in a memoir, you can skirt the murky waters if you’re not ready to jump in.
    2. Great writers go straight to the bone of their humanity. We recognize that and are compelled to their truth. And can relate to it.
    Remember that everyone has the same humanity. We are all swimming in the same water. So revealing yourself is simply declaring your own unique version of that humanity. Whatever it is that you are protecting has been done/thought/experienced 10,000 times. And yet everyone’s individual take on the universal is priceless. It is your gift. And everyone will want to listen to the truth.

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