Clive Matson writes from an itch in his body

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.


December 9th, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

“Onto the side street with worn cobblestones underfoot, following the clacking steps of his younger sister, but a man looks out the iron filigree of a café window and shouts….”

Pedro’s writing captured us, moving into this European land and then he upped the ante, bringing in a figure like a ghost. The narrative froze at the picture of a cape-like, billowing shirt. We waited for more action but time was up, that was all Pedro wrote.

We recited back to Pedro the lines we liked, our usual procedure, and he took notes dutifully. I had an agenda in this workshop, though, to get writers to bring copies of their drafts to the next meeting. It was a WordSwell event at the Unitarian Universalist Church, and people could bring their pieces to a higher level. Pedro nodded agreeably but wouldn’t commit even to looking at his piece again, or continuing it. Let alone revising it.

I was in a sidewalk café after the meeting, talking with the editor of our small journal THE SCRIBBLER. She commented how she liked Pedro’s piece, and would print it if Pedro brought it to completion, giving it a middle and an ending. Of course, at that moment, Pedro sauntered by, ordered a coffee, and sat with us.

“Oh, I never revise my pieces,” he proclaimed, “I just do them and leave them lying around.”

“Not even once?” I tried to provoke him.

All that garnered was a smile. Someone had commented that Pedro worked as a political editor and probably didn’t want the heavy weight of his editor on this slight piece.
“I just write them and put them away.”

“You heard that we liked it, didn’t you?” I leaned forward, almost into his face.

“Oh yes,” he seemed to make his way through the world with an agreeable smile, which he flashed again, showing a chipped front tooth.

“Your piece was speaking to us.”

Pedro nodded.

Will this guy to connect with his inner world? And what did I imagine was there, among Hobbit genes and Neanderthal cave paintings drifting through his DNA, 35,000 years of myths finding expression through our lives? I have no idea. Mermaids and dinosaur souls? My sense is only of a vast, shadowy world, entirely unknown until we start exploring. And mostly unknown after we start exploring. But the exploration begins with recognizing it’s there.

“I think it’s speaking to you, and I want you to listen.”

Same smile from Pedro, the tooth chipped at an angle, and a small head-shake.

How can I make this more forceful?

“I think it wants you to listen.”

A strange expression crossed Pedro’s face for once second, a brief shock, as if he had looked inward and saw a dark animal. He noticed.


August 1st, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

“It’s like a big gun and I pull the trigger. A shotgun!”

The writer was doing the first draft of a pitch of her novel to agents. “A splattershot! All this stuff comes out.”

What a nursery school image, with mud, crayolas, spit, play dough, paint splattering all over. Nothing like the organized play of Jackson Pollock, but truly chaotic. Of course she’s talking about words.

What’s noteworthy here is that she allows this to happen. It’s not surprising that such energy is bubbling up, ready to come out. But think of the discipline, yes, discipline it takes to do this. You have to find the impulse, honor it, and let the first gush out. Then, and here’s where the discipline comes in, not to take the negative voices very seriously. “Oh that is so sloppy! So inaccurate. So off” and go back toward the next impulse, and let it splatter onto the page. Do this over and over.

Chalcedony writes this way, and I must let her. And not worry that what she writes is cliche. I worked on the description of Chalcedony’s Second Ten Songs this week, and it came as pages of impulse and near misses, till I got it right.

The writer continued. “Then I sort through all that stuff, and find the good lines.” That’s when the workshop helped, reading the memorable lines back to her. Belief, trust in the impulse, in the native or authentic impulse is behind this.

The writer even took her own impulse to heart, and relished it. We went into the afternoon session with some joy.

“I’m going to splattershot some more.” She said my wish. Now that word is a verb.

D.H. Lawrence’s version, “It’s not I, It’s not I, It’s the wind blowing through me.”

(With help from Kate Britton and Queenelle Minet.)


Rushed Inspiration

April 23rd, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (1 Comments)

Frantic and edgy, once a month, a writer comes to the workshops full of apologies.

“The dog threw up and I had to take her to the vet.” “Big fight with my spouse.” “Work got me, I had only thirty-five minutes to write.”

Next we’ll hear about the supreme effort. “I got up early and wrote as fast as I could. I didn’t have time to go over it. Or anything. So sorry!”

This happened last week with Vivian. All she had time for, so she said, was an abbreviated “character sketch.”

Then she read a powerful, understated, poignant story. It might be her very best. It’s tuned to the subject, it doesn’t waste any time on fancy sentences or literary images. It has a consistent, naturally evolving tone. And it stays on track. It goes efficiently to its conclusion.

What happened? Why was her opinion so different from the fact?

She might think it was only by chance, that in one moment all the elements for good writing came together. Once she started, though, nothing was by chance.

You know the phrase, “I got out of my own way.” I don’t know when it originated, but I’ve heard it for forty years. We haven’t been talking about the creative process for long, historically, not since Aristotle. Henry James, at the turn of the last century, was the first to analyze story components. And the poets? Keats makes an occasional mention of process. “Getting out of your own way” could have come from Trungpa Rinpoche, in the 1970s, in his talks with Allen Ginsberg.

With only thirty-five minutes for her story, Vivian’s creative unconscious picked a strategy, and nothing got in the way. There wasn’t time. She started at the beginning and went through to the end. Her editorial voices got put aside — no time for them! — her impulse to spell correctly got put aside — no time for that! — her worry about her character’s depth got put aside — no time for that! — her instinct to insert more flair got put aside — no time for that! Her conscious strategy to sharpen her best point got put aside — no time for that, either. None of this is an accident.

The potential for this easy confluence is always at our fingertips. It can happen any time, and nothing about it is an accident. Can we train ourselves to find it? Yes. Do we need to ignore the apologies and the screeching the editorial and writerly voices come up with, because they were ignored? Or circumvented by time? Yes. Or at least give them little credence.

And there’s history. Abe Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was written on an envelope on the train, Martin Luther King discarded his prepared speech and wrote “I have a dream” as he listened to the other speakers, Paul Hawkins threw away his notes, too, and graduation morning wrote his inspiring commencement address, “Earth is Hiring.”

What’s the common element? Or rather, two elements. One, not thinking too much, there isn’t time for that. And two, these writers were in the immediate presence of their material. The temptation to waver their focus was non-existent.

So they wrote well. Very well.

Personal Journey

February 25th, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

022510A guest showed at our workshop last night, one who attended a reading I gave in October. I’d presented Mainline poems from 45 years ago along with Chalcedony Songs and talked about how the voice, in both, uses the world and emotion as reflections of a personal journey.

But I don’t know exactly what intrigued our guest. We do often invite people to see what the workshops are like, and the invitation goes out to whoever displays a spark.

This guest brought a poem with intense heartbreak in the first stanza, and the next three stanzas seemed to spin away from the trauma. Our guest used highly interesting language, but the feeling in the first stanza was not developed. We couldn’t tell what the motivating impulse might be, whether to explore the heartbreak, to accept it fully, to complain about its injustice, or to expose its ironies. Or something else.

We gave feedback, reading to each other lines that we liked, pretending the author was not in the room. This protocol is designed to give our guest the sense of eavesdropping on an honest conversation. There were a number of lines that we liked quite a lot.

The questions was then asked, “What does the poem need?” The imbalance of emotion was noted, and we discussed two strategies. One, to develop the heartbreak, at the same depth it was presented, in the remaining stanzas. Two, to dilute the feeling and spread it, more or less evenly, throughout the poem.

Next we asked the author to join the conversation. We were thanked for our feedback, but our guest had nothing more to say. I couldn’t tell if our comments had struck a chord. And today I received an email thanking us for the invitation and declining to attend another session, on grounds that the workshop was not a fit.

A goal of mine currently is to be more honest, so my reply contained more than polite noises. I made a guess at the forces underlying the previous evening.

“I’m sure you gathered that our workshop believes writing that’s hinged to one’s personal journey is by far the most powerful. Your piece clearly started there. When you’re ready to develop that connection, please feel welcome to join us again.”

Accessible Poetry

February 17th, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (3 Comments)

021710Poetry should be accessible. And I believe the only poetry that works over time is direct and totally understandable. Poetry’s ancient and continuing role is to carry our culture from generation to generation, and we don’t join that tradition if our primary impulse is to show off our brilliance. Or to be witty, or to make money. We do well when we join the tradition with full humility.

Today, of course, this role is debased, but less than one might think. It seems debased partly because of how we define “poetry.” Advertising fits several definitions of poetry perfectly, and it certainly carries much of the culture, even as it drags us down. Spoken Word is totally accessible, and it’s poetry, and it’s carrying the culture for many young people. Same for Rap.

The reading public’s complaint is correct, though: what is termed “mainstream” poetry is often inaccessible. But we should understand “mainstream” is a misnomer. It’s a marketing tool, and there’s nothing mainstream about it, other than that some successful publishers and their audiences use the term. Most mainstream poetry is oblique lyrical poetry. It’s designed to be meditated on, rather than understood. But, to give it its due, mainstream poetry can be far more accessible than procedural poetry, for instance, or Language poetry.

If you read my poetry, you’ll see one way of working through this problem. There are many ways. We should remember how accessible most of our favorite poems are, and “accessible” does accurately describe much poetry. What’s inaccessible about “rosy-fingered dawn” or “money doesn’t talk, it swears” or “the poem does not lie to us, we lie under its law” or “we were very tired, we were very merry” or “be kind to yourself” or “the pure gold baby that melts to a shriek” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died” or “mango warmth fills my belly”?

Poetry and Darkness

February 2nd, 2010 | Posted by clive in Uncategorized - (2 Comments)

020210“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves,” writes Mary Oliver in “The Wild Geese.” This line has become an anthem for this generation, and for those of us going through changes. It might be the most quoted line of this decade. We need this growth and spiritual advice desperately.

Not easy to let the soft animal love, though, if you own upbringing has been difficult. One poet in our workshops is far into the journey of discovering what that might be. Who she is, what that soft animal might love. And poems are a powerful aid.

The journey might not be pleasant, and the poems can be dark. In fact, we were working with our poet and her poem, which has all the pain of being orphaned in a few compact lines. The images were energetic and troubled. The poet worked into the trauma and took a step forward. That step was dripping with pain, and it was only one small step. But the step was forward.

We could feel her exhilaration. We could also feel the darkness.

When it came time for the poet to speak, she was full of gratitude. “My previous workshops got so they wouldn’t read my poems. Too dark!” She mimicked those folks, holding up her hands with her index fingers crossed to ward off evil. “Don’t read us your poems!”

We looked at each other in astonishment. Hadn’t we just been given a few stations of her journey as a gift? Tough though it was, we were honored to join her.

I can’t speak for others, but for myself, my own journey is so difficult, I’m grateful for anyone sharing their own troubles. It’s trusting, for one thing. For another, it affirms the faith that we are together in this difficulty called life and there is common ground. Thanks are due her, from us, for such a gift.

I looked the poet in the eye. “I’m grateful for the company.”

(With help from D. Jayne McPherson.)