Clive Matson writes from an itch in his body

Author Archives: clive

For Tom Quontamatteo

April 30th, 2013 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

“Almost like dancers” completes Tom Quontamatteo’s description of horses mating in the fields at dusk. If he’d used a metaphor, that would color the horses in our minds. If he’d written “like dancers” we’d miss their essential quality, their horseness. They’re energetic and graceful in ways that are difficult to articulate, but we’ve all seen them, and “almost” frees our imagination to remember their full beauty and mystery.

Every poem shows this precise attention to the world, to his psyche, and to exactly what his words accomplish. “A full moon inflated over the eastern hills.” “Sirens wail in the distance like insects in search of a fix. “In the back of old Chevys still going straight in the hot redneck wind.” And “The telephone rings a few times before I take notice of it” concludes the title poem of his book, Emptiness That Plays So Rough. Quontamatteo presents the situation and his mind in a way that holds the essence of both.

Quontamatteo treats his subjects, mostly loneliness, flawed love, and tenuous spirituality, with the same acute awareness. His work is written in the plain, most controlled, most concise language of his mind, with no enhanced feeling or embedded glamour. Compare Wieners’ “A poem for record players,” where both are uppermost, with Quontamatteo’s “Minor Chords,” which has neither. Such an exquisite sense, of how little need be said, should elicit admiration, but Quontamatteo’s own estimation is understated. Did he not know the beauty he created?

There was nothing glamorous about his adult life. That he was bipolar is troubling. His decision to die without medical analysis, in one view, is admirable. His acceptance of the psychiatric industry’s arrogance and disregard is another. “Do you talk to your therapist?” we asked, after an episode like that in “Wondering What the Trouble Is.” “Yes” was his answer, but it was clear he wasn’t being helped and he didn’t know how to manage. He let his teeth turn black and rot in his face.

The poet functions as personal and cultural guide, and this shamanic quality is omnipresent in Quontamatteo’s poems. But our society has dismissed that role, to our loss. Quontamatteo participated by devaluing his life, profoundly aware of his ineffectiveness and of his sadness. “I am calling your name as if you can hear me.” “I put together an insignificant poem, my evening’s raison d’etre.” “My reality is, yes, a contrivance, etched out of loneliness.” The same can be said of many of us, and the shamanic quality of these lines needn’t be restated.

Nothing was said to Quontamatteo about his value, beyond the little a few friends mentioned. I participated, too, sadly, unaware and slow to express my love. Free now from the pressure of trying to relate, I see Quontamatteo’s power.

“Now that I am gone I am leaving you alone with me for the first time.”


January 23rd, 2013 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

“I write it so I can read it,” said one of our writers.

Of course, what could be more obvious? We want to read what we write, and that’s not possible until we see the words on paper or on the screen. And we instinctively take this further, don’t we? We want to share our writing so others can read it.

“I hope you write it so we can read it, too,” someone quipped.

“No!” The writer made a face, twisting her mouth. “You don’t get it.”

We look at each other. “Explain yourself.”

The writer slowed down and spoke emphatically. “I find out what the words are as I write them.”

This is a wowser. Is she writing so fast she doesn’t know what the words are? Or something blanks out the words, but she’s still able to write? This is mystifying. We ask her to continue.

“I don’t know what the story is. I find that out as I write.”

Okay, this, at least, is familiar. We often hear that writers learn what their stories or poems are about after a draft is done. Is this our writer’s experience, too?

“You discover what the story is as you write it?”

“Yes. The book was already written. It just had to get through my fingers into the computer.” But then she takes a breath and gives us the full picture. “I have no idea what the words are until I read them on the screen.”

She means it literally. Having “no idea” is extreme. I throw up my hands, this is beyond my experience. But the workshop must go on, so, hoping that this case can shed light on more ordinary processes, I invite comments.

One writer says that every writing day is an adventure. Her subconscious has been busy, very busy, while she’s not aware of it, at work or at play. “I love the discovery that’s involved in writing.”

“Writing helps me see what I think. If I’m just thinking it, it goes away.”

In Deborah Janke’s novel, The Spy’s Daughter, the professor has an alter ego, Gudrun, who’s a sort of muse. The professor explains, “Gudrun is the one who sabotages my plans and makes poetry possible.”

I’m reminded of David Whyte’s observation. “Poetry is a way of eavesdropping on what we didn’t know we know.”

Another writer comments, “To be a writer is to be a spy on one’s own insides.”

By definition we cannot know what the creative unconscious is doing, so that fits. We are spies on the work of the creative unconscious.

But not knowing what the words are, until you write them?

That’s a mystery of another order. Our writer’s awareness must be so close to her Crazy Child that there’s no space between them. That’s very unusual. Usually we capture words in our head and wrestle with them, knowing what they are, before we push them out our fingers. This writer’s words come out her fingers before she knows what they are.

Then our writer ups the ante. “I dreamt about my novel. There’s a photo that’s supposed to show all three members of the family. But the dream photo had only the mother and the son.” She looked surprised and pleased. “It was blank where the father should have been.”

“What did you do?”

“I killed off the father.”

And that, we found out later, worked. The father needed to be out of the story. Our writer wasn’t responding to a random message, but instead to a signal showing that the plot had already been developed.

“I write it so I can read it.”

We’ll give it full credence, the next time someone says this.


(With help from Elaine Watt, Sheila Meltzer, Jean Hohl, and Sally Bolger.)

Early Influences

November 12th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (3 Comments)

I’m standing at the Berkeley City College podium about to accept a lifetime achievement award. Tears stream down my cheeks. I’ll need to speak and of all the ideas rattling around my head, I haven’t settled on one. I tell this to the audience and mention, “I asked my mentor, Herbert Huncke, who passed in 1996, what to say. He thought for a moment and then replied, ‘I have no idea.’”

I begin a mini-biography on the spot. An old fellow, with elegant gray hair streaming from his tonsure and an alert glint in his eye, introduced himself as a poet. “How did you get into poetry?” I asked, and he shrugged. “Teenage angst. I never left it.” That’s the feeling in the body, an authentic, informing source of the first poem I wrote, too, at fourteen. I quarreled with that impulse for years because it wasn’t cool. I would work halfway out, and the impulse would pull me back into one of the body’s disguises. Little by little I sank into the creative unconscious and got stuck.

Michael McClure laments in Dark Brown, “So much to remember, so much to remember, so much to remember.” The conscious mind admits so much is going on in the creative unconscious that it can’t keep up. The poet stands at a portal, overwhelmed. Confronting a darker portal, Alden van Buskirk wrote in Lami, as he was dying, “I could write in all tones, mad and/or sweet drones.” I hear this as awe at the range of possibilities. Allen Ginsberg concurs in a casual, playful tone, “I am eye, old father fish eye,” with a touch of self-mockery, since “Fish eye” might be something suspect. But to this young writer, his words hinted at the wise and mysterious strength of the sea, as if that’s the creative source and Ginsberg is there, swimming in it.

In The Hotel Wentley Poems John Wieners asserts, “The poem does not lie to us. We lie under its law.” The poem does take over our minds. We are like the Greek soldiers, whose epitaph reads, “Here we lie, obedient to your will,” and we’ll tell untruths to serve its ends. We should do just that.

In 1964 Diane di Prima wrote, “The sidewalk is crumbling into diamonds. In the sky a mouth is opening to take you finally in.” I drop into the myths and passions flowing through us when I read this. Could it be an accident that the men, effective at pointing the way, contrast so sharply with the woman, whose words themselves are a portal?

Alden van Buskirk’s advice to himself was “Indolence.” That’s his way to the source, and it underlines how the huge amount of cerebration about poetry sucks our energy. Whole systems of thought tell us how to write poems, what we should include, what we should leave out. We’ve got those systems in our heads, and bend under their weight, even if we haven’t been to school.

Just be lazy, says van Buskirk, and they’ll go away. How refreshing and how simple, like Timothy Leary’s, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.” Except that we can ignore the middle command. Once you tune in to the creative unconscious, you are turned on.

You might want to turn yourself off, though. The creative source could have raging sand storms, rain funnels, a chaos of weather, foul mists, and glorious sunsets. No wonder the conscious mind wants to protect us! But too often that protection becomes a wet blanket.

Don’t give it energy, says van Buskirk, and that restrictive mind will vanish.

“Tune in and drop out.”

How does that sound?


Why write?

May 4th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

“When you write, you go deep into your most personal place, discover and make clear to
yourself what you find. And you share your most intimate self with your reader. You imagine
your audience and you speak your truth. You know you will be understood.”

These are Adele Mendelson’s reasons for writing. You might say, well, that’s true for a
poet who writes personal stuff. It doesn’t apply to prose writers.

But the same thing does happen in stories, I believe, though it’s probably not so easy to
recognize. It happens through the action and through a change in a character. For the writer, the
personal insight may be a few steps removed. Why, for instance, did Flannery O’Conner have
the grandmother murdered after her epiphany in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”? Did something
come up for O’Conner about her family? We could ask a similar question of James Joyce, about
commitment and illusion, in his story “The Dead.”

Adele goes on, “This is a unique kind of communication. Best friends, lovers, even
spouses don’t receive this pure flow. You may speak to your husband about your work, your life,
relationship issues.

“But you don’t tell him, ‘In the earliest blue, I am gone. I’m not the me you know, I’m
far away in a space that only I can fly to. I return, put on my apron, kiss you good-bye. But one
day I may stay away. It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s because I am more – boundless, unknown,
hungry, free – ’”

How can you tell somebody words like those? Adele says you might not even know the
words until you write them. And you don’t say these things because other people “operate on a
different level.” She might have said that the poet operates on a more authentic level. In writing
and rewriting and thinking again, you reach for your exact, intimate meaning. “The poem is a
bridge from my mind to yours.”

This is close to what Allen Ginsberg says. “Poetry is not an expression of the party line.
It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world
public, that’s what the poet does.”

The power we experience in writing may be beyond anything. One grain of authenticity
may be worth all the self-doubt, all the naked feeling, all the struggle with demons. It weighs
more than a mountain of effort and pain. It’s life-changing and enduring. It stymies any system
of cost analysis.

One grain of authenticity. Go figure.


April 15th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

Fifteen years ago my partner was into reading books, many books: mysteries, trendy novels, science fiction, trash novels, poetry, prize-winning novels. She’d finish one she liked and pass it across the bed.

“Try this, I really enjoyed it.”

I’d read a few pages and then stack it on the floor.

“That’s it? You read a dozen pages and you’re done?”

Yes, I’d tell her, that writer seemed to have an intriguing plot going but it didn’t hold me for long. Or I’d enjoy the dialogue for a few pages, but I wanted more. Or the characters were likeable at first but eventually I couldn’t relate. The pile of books at my side of the bed got large.

I was more involved with writing from the workshops than with published work. That didn’t seem right, so I surveyed book stores and asked other writers who read a lot. Of course there was, and is now, a wide variety of adroit, competent writing out there. My partner had shown me a broad sample. Still I was more interested in the workshops’ efforts.

“What about this one, should I hand it to you?” My partner had finished another well-loved novel. “Or just throw it on the pile?”

I couldn’t broadcast my prejudice, though, since I need to look appreciative for people interested in workshops. I learned to say something intelligent about current writers, especially those with cache, at the time Alice Monroe and Tobias Woolf. Or, if the questioner leaned toward classics, I’d mention Tillie Olsen or J.D. Salinger or Flannery O’Conner or Charles Bukowski.

What’s going on? I remembered something an alert reader had observed in the 1970s. He said enduring work has “muscle in the ectoplasm.” Maybe that’s the angle, for my first models were Alden Van Buskirk, early John Wieners and Michael McClure, when I was protege to the Beats during 1962-1967 in New York. Add Sappho, Simonides, Rumi, Shakespeare, Keats, Elliot, Virginia Woolf, and Marge Piercy, and there’s plenty of muscle. That muscle comes from deep personal commitment.

But this doesn’t explain why workshop writing appeals so much. Do our writers all happen to be great, just undiscovered? Does my personal esthetic seep into the air and into their heads, and we have a class full of Shakespeares? Are we part of Dorothea Brande’s university of the unconscious, and the writers somehow teach themselves?

Not a chance. Truth be told, I have no idea how it happens, and no idea how to introduce muscle. I think the only answer can be that our strategy, with its focus on the creative unconscious, directs us little by little to a barrier we can’t easily cross. We follow the restlessness in our psyches, or the itch in our bodies, and we come to a place where personal issues weave into the characters and into the plot. And, to continue, we have to develop a lot of strength. We have to solve problems.

I haven’t any idea how to teach this. In the workshops, we listen to the journey and support the writer. There’s nothing to do but say, writer, you put yourself there, now it’s your fight. Good luck.

“Yeah, Honey, just throw that book directly in the pile. It doesn’t need me to turn pages.”

I want to feel the tug-of-war as the author grapples with a serious problem. Work out, author! Like writers in the workshops.



March 11th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

“Writing workshops are exercises in magic. The entire creative unconscious operates according to its own logic, by definition a logic we know nothing about. When we dip into our creative source, we’re dipping into magic.”

I give this talk every workshop. It opens another dimension of the Crazy Child exercise, where we tell the Editor and the Writer to take a walk, and let the Crazy Child write whatever it wants. In the tropics those voices could head for the beach, try bird-watching, or go climb a tree with the howler monkeys.

In Costa Rica, magic entered the room the moment I finished my spiel. A white moth, an inch-and-a-half wide, fluttered over the heads of the dozen people in our workshop. A gecko came suddenly out of hiding and scurried along next to the ceiling, in position to pounce. The hapless insect flew close to the gecko, and a second gecko appeared, twin to the first, a gray lizard-shaped animal about five inches long, moving adroitly high on the wall. For an instant the moth was poised midway between the geckos, who faced it from either side. We expected to witness the moth’s demise.

Instead the moth fluttered into open space. Flitting this way and that, out of reach of gecko jaws, it seemed oblivious, happy-go-lucky, and why not? It flew in comparative safety. The moth demonstrated the huge size of the creative unconscious: It lives in three dimensions and the geckos, in effect, are confined to two, the surfaces of the walls.

Casual magic is commonplace. How often does the phone ring, when a line is read that mentions the phone? Or a siren goes off, when there’s sirens in someone’s story? Costa Rica gave us a perfect representation of the Editor and the Writer in bad moods, or eager for action, or just hungry for lunch. And the Crazy Child escaped.

In Costa Rica the portal to the creative source is wide. When we did workshops in Scotland and Italy, wonderful as they were, the very things we love about Europe limited access. The portal felt crowded with cathedrals, museums, castles, and hundreds of years of tradition. But Costa Rica is Central America, it’s the new world and not much nibbles around the edges of any portal. A wide open sky with very little history we’re aware of, with sunsets you can walk into, hosts of exotic and colorful birds, a tribe of monkeys in the trees, a green flash almost every night as the sun sets, and a warm ocean that lets us swim freely and soaks away our doubts. It’s all as vast and as intriguing as the creative unconscious itself.

The geckos might have commented, with their crisp calls, “clack-clack-clack” a half second apart, on what we were saying at the workshop. They did call from their hiding places, but I didn’t notice any sort of fit. Afterwards I walked to my room, and the howler monkeys were talking. “Uhhgg-uh-uhmnhg-mnh” they called out in the trees, an extremely loud, dinosaurial sound like nothing else. You don’t have to go through a portal to hear these guys.

Do they speak for my creative unconscious? The calling continued into the night. If I could translate that “Uhhgg-uh-uhmnhg-mnh” I’d put it in a poem.

Why so vulnerable?

January 12th, 2012 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

“Observing that there’s always something of value in a piece of writing, Matson encourages his students to trust their creative impulses.” (East Bay Express, 2006)

Assessing what’s of value may be chancy, since we filter out so many impulses in our writing lives, and advanced writers filter out more. They’ve learned what works for them and what doesn’t. But when we’re on a developmental spurt, or when we’re beginning, it’s useful to have no filters.

“It feels like vomit. Just vomit!” one beginning writer stated, and then added, “That’s when I know I’m doing well! There’s vomit all over the page.”

This is extreme, and the slightest tinge should remind us that writing may be neither mild nor safe. Violent and soul-wrenching forces lurk beneath our words. The image speaks both to how much we have invested in our day-to-day personality and to how much that personality may differ from our authentic self. We could be committing a huge amount of energy to maintain a fiction.

It took forty years or so for me to work through self-images and allow the Chalcedony poems to emerge. My journey is not a smooth one, more like a wiggly trail, being a hipster, an intellectual, a political radical, a lay psychologist, an ordinary male – I don’t remember what all, on the way to the raw honesty and full passion of Chalcedony’s voice.

The question, “Why so vulnerable?” doesn’t have a single answer. When it’s asked, though, the territory displays its ubiquity and its difficulties. Integrating our authentic self, which probably includes some of what psychologists call “the excluded self,” can release as much pain as it is possible for any human being to feel.

That’s only the beginning. In Western culture, with its emphasis on linearity, human myths have been submerged, though of course they’re operating as strongly as ever – in the strata beneath our awareness. They evolved over thousands of years and express the stories we’re born to fulfill or born to contest. As we write, they send chunks of energy through our bodies and onto the page.

This could expose us to the total sum of historical pain, to as much human pain as exists. How to deal with it is an individual problem, and changing the twelve-step maxim “one day at a time” to “one breath at a time” is helpful to me. If we accept some of our vulnerability as valuable, or link it to a mythological source, we continue our development. The beginning writer did just that, acknowledging the feeling and recognizing that it means she’s doing well.

David Whyte asks if vulnerability and humility are close first cousins. He suggests, “There is a lovely root to the word humiliation – from the Latin word humus, meaning soil or ground. When we are humiliated, we are in effect returning to the ground of our being.”

Is my journey painful? Yes, I go through a lot, humiliation and shame, as well as fear, and panic, along with a trembly astonishment when a glimpse comes through of the reward. The beauty we earn and inherit, when we finally start to become who we are.

Looking at the question from a positive angle, Don Miguel Ruiz comments in The Four Agreements: “Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive – the risk to be alive and express what we really are. Just being ourselves is the biggest fear of humans.”

(With help from Carrie Mercy, Lonner Holden, and Kalaena Pertofsky)

Writing and Vulnerability

November 24th, 2011 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (6 Comments)

“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.)


October 27th, 2011 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Writing is an adventure, and the excitement it generates comes from more than getting words on the page. When our writing chooses its own way, or even just meanders, it can take us to surprising and provocative places. I see these journeys emerge in workshops often, and their origin is something of a mystery.

It’s easy for me, the facilitator, to give permission to write freely, to write your most passionate thoughts, your wildest images, your most fantastic ideas, your deepest feelings. But that doesn’t make it happen.

I watch for a mischievous glint in someone’s eye, and then wait for that glint to ignite a spark that goes all around the room. The spark does this on its own, as if everyone is already primed for something interesting. “I’ll let out my wildest thoughts if you’ll let out yours,” the spark seems to say. “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.”

A few moments into it, though, the game changes. That wild idea or that passionate thought – whatever we started with – has another thought following close behind, a wilder thought, or one that’s nastier, or one that’s more vulnerable. And that’s followed in turn by a whole string of thoughts, and they could be heading somewhere very dangerous.

We’ve been on a high-dive platform, egging each other on, and our first negotiation now looks way mild. It should be something like, “I’ll take this hazardous journey if you will, too. I’ll follow through to the end if you will, too, no matter what happens.”

The pool we’ve jumped into turns into an ocean and the ocean sucks us in. The current will take us, well, who knows where? To another universe, a dark forbidden room, a plethora of disturbing thoughts, a light movie of our own life, a carnival of mythic passion? We risk a lot more than getting wet.

We are brave adventurers. We’ve dived into the source of our creativity, somewhere in the unknown 99 percent of the brain’s province, where the creative unconscious lives – though the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know?” suggests the figure should be 99.999999995 percent. That’s a lot of strange territory and, by definition, it’s all operating with unfamiliar logic.

Perhaps we knew where we were going, perhaps we had some idea what our material might be, but when it’s on the page, it’s a different animal. Scruffy, full of energy, slightly or almost totally unfamiliar, there’s no denying where it came from and it’s  looking us in the eye. Now begins the challenge to understand it.

We’ve been on one heck of an adventure.

“Oh God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”

We could be overcome with fear and trembling but, usually, we are pleasantly excited. Could it be we’ve misread the origin of our arousal? Our conscious mind, this tiny boat, has a way of persuading that we understand how things work, and it could be in error. That excitement might be transmitted directly to our bodies and psyches by the material itself.

Hair rose on my neck as I wrote that sentence. I wonder if this is the source telling me, in its own way, that I’m hitting the bull’s eye. Our material has been residing in unlit halls, unacknowledged and untouched, and there’s suddenly a crack of daylight. A door is opening. Our material has a chance to push itself into the world for the first time.

Maybe it’s overcome with excitement at the possibility of finally being seen.

(With help from Katie Amatruda and Jeff Karon.)


May 4th, 2011 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (6 Comments)

“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.