Writing from the Inside

Doug Schlesser

I want you to think about the last time that you actually saw the world. Think
about the time that you last observed the sunrise or watched the sunset with someone
special, maybe the last time walked down the street and saw more than your destination
and finally, think about the last time you wrote for the sake of writing. Natalie Goldberg
asks all of her readers to do all of these things. In 1986 when Goldberg published her first
book, Writing Down the Bones, she began a whole new branch of writing instruction that
focuses on the principles of Zen Buddhism. Instruction is not her only talent; she has
published 13 books including a collection of poetry and her artwork and a novel. She
creates very personal connections with her readers, and that is what keeps people coming
back, as well as securing Natalie Goldberg’s place as one of the leading authors in her
area to this day.

Creative Writing is my favorite part of English, and Natalie Goldberg is one of my
favorite authors, so naturally I am interested in the two of them together. What I like most
about her is her writing style. She talks to the reader; she doesn’t lecture instructions or
act like an expert. In fact, most people think that someone with so much success in the
writing world must have been writing before they could speak whole sentences and that
they worked hard and long at their craft their entire life. This is not true with Goldberg.
She did not pick up a pen and paper until she was twenty-four years old (Wild Mind 196).
Part of me chose to write about Goldberg to give myself the opportunity to write about an
author that I love, and another part of me wanted me to learn more about writing practice
and her life. I set out to find a way to incorporate writing practice into my own life and
the different ways that it could benefit me as a young writer.

I started research for this project by doing more reading than a first year student
could ever imagine. I read four of Goldberg’s books, two of her instruction oriented
works and two memoir. Also, I began to keep my own notebook. For Goldberg a
notebook is a place where your daily writing practice is kept. Writing practice is writing
for a specific amount of time without stopping. Goldberg makes it clear that notebooks do
not need to be expensive. In fact, come back to school time she likes to buy notebooks
with colorful superhero covers (Bones). When I bought my own notebook it was a Mead
Composition Book with a marble cover. For around a month I wrote, almost every day,
for at least ten minutes to delve into my “first thoughts.” (Goldberg makes it clear that
writing practice is not the same as journaling.) I think that keeping my own notebook also
gave me an insight into what Goldberg went through as she was starting to write; she kept
a notebook for six years before writing practice became habit.

While reading these books and practicing, I looked for articles online about
Goldberg’s work and found a personal account of a journalism professor from the
University of Oregon and listened to an interview of Goldberg on Thoughtcast.net, which
gave me the idea to write to Goldberg and ask for my own interview. I sent an e-mail to
her via her publishers at Shambala and after I had given up all hope of hearing back, my
phone rang one Friday morning and I was met by a voice that I had heard only once
before, the voice of Natalie Goldberg. The next Sunday, we talked on the phone and I
learned more about her life and writing than I ever thought that I would. I learned

something different about her decision to write from these three different avenues of her
writing and our interview.

Natalie Goldberg has written multiple books in the area of writing instruction. Her
two most known are Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life.
Published four years apart Wild Mind and Writing down the Bones really do go hand in
hand together. It is almost fair to say that Goldberg’s later book is a sequel to Bones and
is merely a continuation of instruction and thoughts expressed in her earlier work.
It is unfair to go on without introducing Goldberg’s “School of Writing Practice” as she
calls it in the beginning of Bones. Writing practice is just like running, or lifting weights.
A runner must run in order to increase his speed and the same goes for a writer: a writer
must write to get better at writing.

Just like there are rules about breathing in running, there is a set of rules of
writing practice that Goldberg strictly adheres to. Starting with the first and foremost she
says to keep the hand moving, once you start do not stop for anything. Next you must lose
control, by this she is saying that you must write what you want to right, no matter if it is
correct or polite. She tells writers to e specific. Write about your “Cadillac,” not just a
“car.” One of the most important rules is don’t think. Goldberg is telling writers not to
listen to that part of them that says “No!” get what comes out onto paper. No one will be
reading your notebook but you so, don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar.
You are also free to write the worst junk in America. And finally Go for the jugular. If
something comes up that is scary, go for it. That is where the energy is. (Wild)

Amidst all of these rules there must be a measure for progress. To Goldberg,
progress is measured by the ability to break through “monkey mind” which is the
Buddhist term for a writer’s internal editor. For example, think of a wide blue sky. In this
sky, anywhere, place a small black dot. Step back and look at the sky. What do you see?
A blue sky with a black dot. This is the essence of “monkey mind” and the internal editor.
There is a whole sky to look at, but all your focus moves to the small black dot. In
writing, forcing through the words of your editor is the same thing as focusing on that big
blue sky. From my experiences writing, I must say that this is one of the most difficult
things to do as a writer. Goldberg would agree.

Goldberg is never condescending in her voice, nor does she act like a superior as
far as writing is concerned, she even says, “I am a student as much as you are. It is just
that I have been in school longer” (Bones). Goldberg tells the story of her Zen Master,
Katagiri Roshi asking her, “Why do you continue with Zen? Why not make writing your
practice?”” She took these words to heart and instead of using meditation to look inside
of herself like a student of Zen she writes in an attempt to search deeper into her mind.
Melissa Hart of the University of Oregon discovered Goldberg’s first book when
she was a college student in 1987, only a year after its publication. Like many people she
provides a personal account of just how special this book was to her. She quickly started
to practice. “Those were magical evenings,” she describes, “just me and the ticking of
my watch and the increasing, exhilarating belief in my own voice” (Hart). What both Hart
and myself feel are the most important words Goldberg writes, and quite essential for any
beginner are “trust in what you love and it will take you where you need to go” (Hart).

Looking into these words show the path that Goldberg needed to take in her writing. By
trusting her own passions in life it took her to where she wanted to be, a writer and a poet.
Bones is less of a straightforward instructional book than Wild Mind. While Bones
is chock full of smaller exercises intertwined in the chapters its counterpart has specific
sections in which Goldberg tells you to “Try this.” For example, one prompt goes like
this, “Okay, let’s finally put that old black dog behind us. Write about your summer
vacation, that composition you wrote every fall for one hundred years. Only this time tell
the truth. What did you really do this summer? Remember: your third grade teacher won’t
be reading this” (Wild 58). I tried quite a few of these prompts in my own notebook and I
found them to be very helpful in developing my own topics and branching out from solely
using Goldberg’s prompts. One of the most beneficial exercises was a list of “what you
want to write about.” I did not write for the full ten minutes as prescribed, but I did write
for a page and found that there were alarming things that I wanted to write about. Over
the next few days, instead of writing from the book, I took different topics from the list
that I had generated.

There is a very clear chapter at the beginning of this book that outlines the rules of
writing practice that were spread throughout the whole of Bones. In fact the first lines of
the book tell the ultimate truth of writing practice, “for fifteen years now, at the beginning
of every writing workshop, I have repeated the rule for writing practice. […] They are the
bottom line, the beginning of all writing, the foundation of learning to trust your own
mind” (Wild 1). While reading this book, these lines spoke to me about how and why she
must have developed these rules. These guidelines provide a deep look into what she has
accomplished with writing practice. “Learning to trust [her] own mind” being the most
important. I think that this has been the most helpful piece from her instruction books,
and it has become one of my major goals in practicing writing: trusting myself.
Natalie Goldberg’s memoirs are totally different beings than her books on writing
instruction. It is very interesting to see the transition of her work from teacher to story
teller. In Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up In America Goldberg talks about everything in
her life from growing up to finally deciding that she is a lesbian. There are parts of this
narrative that sound very much like they were taken from the deepest moments of her
writing practice and give you a look at how much writing practice can expose in your life.
In Highway, she takes the reader on a monologue about why she started writing, “…I was
interested in finding out who I was. I wanted to study my own mind. I wrote down my
mind in the notebook and then read it later. It was a way to digest myself, all of myself”
(Highway 44). Her second memoir The Great Failure was very much a tale of how her
world came crashing down around her. Natalie writes about her father’s sexual abuse and
the reality of who her Zen teacher really was. Goldberg says that the idea was to accept all
of it in her writing, to make her notebook a safe place in which she could talk openly
about her experiences when she was ready to do so (Failure 101). Also in talking about
her writing, she compares it to taking LSD, “Writing does the same thing. I became
immense. I saw I was always immense, but with writing, unlike LSD, it took work to get
there and the aim wasn’t to be immense or high, the aim was to write, to just be in the
soup of my own mind with my notebook spread out in front of me and my hand moving
the pen” (45).

From her memoir it is very clear how her life was affected by writing and how it
shaped her experience with writing practice and through that I have found ways that I can
incorporate writing into my own life. Through passages of Goldberg’s observations and
realizations it has given me an idea of what to look for to put on the page from my own
world and life. Still, I craved more. So I went straight to the source.
I looked so forward to my interview with Goldberg. I was full of questions to ask
her about her craft and her approach to writing. Her books are full of anecdotes about
how writing has affected her life, but nothing is like hearing it come from her mouth.
Natalie has an incredibly soothing voice and is an incredibly welcoming person. During
our conversation there was lots of back and forth. And in every question I found insight
into writing and how to adapt it to my life.

I started out by asking Natalie what she thought the largest obstacles facing young
writers today is. Natalie was adamant about the fact that there is to much mechanization
in the world. “No one is home,” she said, “and I think that there isn’t a love for their work
anymore. Sure, young people walk around listening to their iPods, but music isn’t their
work; it’s someone else’s. Young writers need to take pride in their own work.”
During the beginning of our conversation I asked Goldberg how often she finds
good lines in her mounds of notebooks. She replied with, “It’s very hard to say.
Sometimes there are large sections in which you’ve broken through, other times in a
whole notebook there may be one good line. I think the best example of that is when I
found the line, ‘I came to love my life.’ Think about how open and honest that is, and I
hadn’t even known that I wrote it until two months afterward when I re-read my
notebook. But one good line was terrific. It really teaches you about who you are, and I
think that is why I needed to become a writer, I wanted to know more about who I was.”
Because I often have trouble deciding what to write about, which was also
Natalie’s problem early on, I asked her how she though of things to write about. I was met
with an answer that rang deep in me; it was something that I have felt as well. “When I
became a writer, and I use the term loosely, because who can really say when you actually
“become” a writer, but anyway, when I became a writer the entire earth dropped away
from me. When I wrote my first poem, it was heaven, it was the best thing that I ever felt
and I wanted to keep feeling it, I craved it.”

Through my experiences with reading her writing, talking with her one on one and
immersing myself in her craft by writing in a notebook for a month I have found
Goldberg’s writing helpful. When I set out to find ways to incorporate writing into my
own life through her writing I was wandering in the dark. After a month of writing
practice I feel that I have started to chip away at my internal editor and his very loud
voice. Looking back on the pages that I have written I found that are some times where
Goldberg’s writing exercises did not yield great writing. On the other hand, there have
been things that I never thought that I would write about, or write. I feel that I have
jumped into my writing head first and I am fully submerged into the way that I write and
what I want to accomplish. I have found that I have written two or three poems in my
notebook. Poetry is an art form that I had never thought to pursue, but from what I have
read of my own writing, it is not completely out of my reach. Also, I’ve written several
short stories in my notebook that I have had in my mind for ages that have only been fully
realized through writing practice. The most important thing that I have taken from this
look into Natalie Goldberg’s work was not just a familiarity with an author but also a new
part of my life. Writing is not always a supportive friend, but I have found that I the
moments I have spent with pen in hand over the last month have been some of the most
gratifying in my entire life.

 

Works Cited
Goldberg, Natalie. Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America. New York: Bantam,
1993.


Goldberg, Natalie. Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Life. New York: Bantam, 1990.


Goldberg, Natalie. The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to
Truth. New York: Bantam, 2004.


Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston:
Shambala, 1986.

Hart, Melissa. "Writing for the Moon and Stars." The Chronicle of High Education 13
APR 2007 15 NOV 2007 <http://chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i32/32b00501.htm>.

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