TW Interview by Judith A. Ross
A Renowned Teacher Challenges the Rules
Some people embrace Natalie Goldberg’s Zen approach to writing; others resist it. But in all cases, she urges writers to dive deep. Author of the bestselling guides Writing Down the Bones (1986) and Wild Mind (1990), Goldberg peppers her conversation with Buddhist references like “sitting with my own mind.”
She speaks of the need to observe your “passing thoughts” in order to get to wild mind: the place within yourself that’s devoid of self-censorship.
I spoke with Goldberg over the phone this past June, quizzing her about her alternative teaching style. A longtime Buddhist practitioner, Goldberg studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Center from 1978 to 1984. She’s been leading workshops since the ‘80s, in settings as diverse as the Antioch Writer’s Workshop and the Kripalu Center in Lenox, Massachusetts.
Goldberg’s latest book is Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (2007). In her “Note to Reader,” she opens by saying:
This book is designed not only for you to read but to drench you in the writing process and in your life of memory. Too often we take notes on writing, we think about writing but never do it. I want you to walk into the heart of the storm, written words dripping off hair, eyelids, hanging from hands.
For those of us who connect with Goldberg’s unusual form of cheerleading, it’s often personal, as it turned out to be for me. Most of the writing I do is on assignment with a deadline. I take plenty of notes—but writing for its own sake? That happens as rarely as a paid assignment from the New Yorker.
So, while on a family vacation this summer, I grabbed a few minutes here and there to try the freewriting practice Goldberg preaches. Pen to paper, keep my hand moving, just as she advises. One afternoon, I plopped down on a bench in the middle of the Louvre and began describing the Venus de Milo, who seemed oblivious to the tourist mobs admiring her glorious nakedness.
Before I knew it, my hand had moved on to the fabulous woman I’d noticed at dinner the night before: “She was a dead ringer for actress Leelee Sobieski. Her long, blonde hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail and her dress was impeccably Parisian: a crisp white blouse, black leggings, gold sandals, and a wide silver cuff on her right arm.”
I didn’t get below the surface of things, but at least I was writing.
TW: What turned you into a writer? Did you have formal training?
NG: No. I took a six-week course with Allen Ginsberg in 1976 at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics [part of the Summer Writing Program at Naropa in Boulder, Colorado]. That’s the only thing I’ve taken. Zen is really my ground for writing. It’s my source.
TW: What made you want to teach writing?
NG: I have a public school certificate, and I taught in the public schools. I deeply love, honor, and respect teaching. If I wasn’t teaching writing, I’d be teaching reading...or cooking. I started out in 1970 as a substitute teacher in Detroit during the riots. I brought in The Norton Anthology of English Literature—I was in love with literature—and the kids responded. They brought me books, too: Leroy Jones, Langston Hughes.
TW: How did you develop your approach? It seems like it would be a good antidote to writer’s block.
NG: I don’t believe in writer’s block. I don’t even think it exists. What you have to do is just pick up a pen and physically write. What happens is that people get lost in their minds and their ideas. I developed my approach over many years. I was practicing Zen, sitting meditation for long hours, and Katagiri Roshi [her teacher] said, “Why don’t you make writing your practice?” Before that, I knew I couldn’t learn how to do writing in school, because people didn’t know how to teach it. So I had to figure it out on my own. What are the tools of the writer but pen, paper, and the human mind? Where do thoughts come from? Where’s memory? Where’s past? I just worked with the human mind, and I figured out if you keep your hand moving, something will come out.
TW: How did you go about deepening your knowledge of the mind?
NG: From sitting with my own mind for many hours. I sat meditation for pretty much my entire thirties.
TW: How does your approach to teaching writing differ from traditional methods?
NG: You just do it. Pick up the pen. Go. And you time yourself. You do writing practice. Don’t cross out. Trust your own mind, be specific—not car, but Cadillac. Lose control. Say what you really want to say, not what you think you should say. We mostly live in discursive thinking, but in writing practice, if you keep your hand moving, you eventually settle below discursive thinking to wild mind, the place where you really see, think, and feel. That’s the place you want to get to in order to write.
TW: Can good writing be taught?
NG: You can accompany somebody in practice. And you can read good writers; they are your teachers, and you can study them. You might not write the great American novel, but you can certainly learn to write, and to write well, and to appreciate writing.
TW: In your chapter about how memory works in Old Friend from Far Away, I made a note asking, “How does she know this stuff?” You learned how one memory can trigger a completely different one by observing your own mind?
NG: If you want to learn about memoir writing, read a lot of memoirs. And I also wrote a lot. I began a lot of writing practices with, “I remember, go, 10 minutes.”
TW: You devoted a chapter in the same book to the James Frey scandal, although you don’t mention him by name. You note that the truth might have been much more compelling than the story he fabricated. Where does the memoir writer draw the line between fact and fiction?
NG: Nobody cares whether it's rye toast or wheat toast. You might not remember exactly, but we long for details—so put a detail down anyway. I’m not lying if I say, “I think it was a red dress I was wearing,” and it was really rose or blue. That’s about the imagination. That’s really different from a very big lie like “I was a race car driver.” I can say, “I wanted to be a race car driver,” and then get into it and imagine it. But I can’t say "I was a race car driver," because I wasn’t.
TW: What about when two people remember the same event very differently? My brother and I often disagree about our past.
NG: Of course you do. You were born at a different time. You’re you, and your brother is him. You have different desires and needs. Your parents treated you differently, so you developed differently. All you have to do is look. Things are right in front of our faces if we want to look. “Oh my God, my husband went out on me!” But did you pay attention to what was going on in the relationship? It might not be such a surprise, really. It might not be what you wanted, but you didn’t want to see it. And a writer’s job is to see things as they are. Not color them.
TW: You also devote a chapter in Old Friend to structure and editing. Especially in the age of blogging, it seems the ability to self-edit is more important than ever.
NG: I think blogging is wonderful. It’s another way of doing writing practice, and it’s a way to immediately communicate with other people. That’s what I have in my classes. We write and then we read aloud, and the students become very close.
TW: What advice do you give your students about editing and structure?
NG: I don’t really get into editing with students. My job is to help them a priori write. Before you decide to do a novel or an essay or anything, I want you to have a strong writing spine. Then you can decide whether you want to write a novel or an essay. You have the means to write what you want.
TW: Has your approach to teaching changed over the years?
NG: Of course, that’s what makes it fun! I don’t really plan anything—it's spontaneous—but I know where I want people to go. I meet the group and see what they are like. We always do writing practice. Now we also do meditation and slow walking.
TW: Where do you want them to go?
NG: I want them to have confidence in their experience, that it’s rich enough to write about; I want them to trust their own voices.
To catch up with this busy instructor, you'll find a schedule of upcoming workshops on Natalie Goldberg's website. The website refers to Wild Mind as “secretly Natalie's favorite book,” but the prolific Goldberg, also a painter, has written many others. Here are a few titles, along with an interview from The Sun:
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, originally published by Shambhala Publications in 1986 (Shambhala/Random House, expanded new edition, 2005).
- Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life (Bantam, 1990).
- Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft (Bantam, 2000).
- The Great Failure: My Unexpected Path to Truth (HarperCollins, 2004).
- Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, November 2007).
- “Keep the Hand Moving: Natalie Goldberg on Zen and the Art of Writing Practice,” The Sun, November 2003.
You gave your wild mind a lot of galloping room. Now you need to pick up the reins and direct it to trot down a path, your path. You can’t take the whole wheat field with you but you can canter through it and say you were here. Go ahead. You grew the wheat, now cut it down, make your own shadow line through the yellow stalks. Don’t worry. The wheat is golden, waiting for this moment.
— Natalie Goldberg, "Old Friend from Far Away"