Saturday, June 25, 2016

Why we need Natalie Goldberg

"In the past my most reliable elixir 
had been to continue under all circumstances."
                                           — Natalie Goldberg

Writing is work but I’d never suggest it is crushing work the way picking strawberries or replacing a transmission or sanding and repainting a house demands everything you have, often under brutal conditions like summer heat and humidity, an empty stomach or failing knees. Relatively speaking, writing is good work.  

In her new book, “The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life,” Natalie Goldberg says, “Being a writer is not easy. Layers of skin are yanked off.”

I suppose so, but that kind of discomfort comes easy to me. I hardly need to write to feel like I’m being skinned alive. One reason we hear so much about this profession is because it’s made up of writers. And they can be rather expressive.

The act of writing is the best part of a writing profession. You sit quietly and think. You’re in an orb of possibilities. You’re ripe! Ideas and words stream through, yours for the plucking. Some writers put these words on paper and some use a keyboard. Some dictate, especially when they break something in their hand or arm. Inside a writer’s head (or anyone’s head, to be honest) is a vast fantasyland where anything can happen. You just have to organize these scenarios a bit and then get them onto the page. I find writing to be fun, especially when I disconnect from self-consciousness, expectations, doubt and fear.

But getting to writing can be quite difficult. We all know the house has to be clean, the desk dusted and the interruptions blocked. We can’t write after an argument, after a hard day at work or after sex. We can’t write when our husband is in the hospital or when we’ve got nothing planned for dinner or when we realize we’ve got to get the dishes done before friends come by for cocktails. We can’t write with a headache. We can’t write when we’re sleepy or crabby. We can’t write when the TV’s on. We can’t write through Facebook notifications, text message alerts or ringing phones. We can’t write when we have poison ivy. We can’t write when an ambulance pulls up to the neighbor’s house or when we spill coffee in the keyboard.

Fear not. Goldberg has figured it out for us.

“Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.”

Really, that’s all there is to say. She could have spared herself the work of a whole book since she wrote these two lines on page xiii of her introduction. “Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.” I bought the book because of these two lines. I needed to know I’m not the only one battling circumstances.

Writing gets us all balled up because we know we have to write a lot all the time and we have to write every day if we are ever to perfect our craft or keep the momentum going in our writing projects.

I like Natalie Goldberg’s book. Here’s a link to my review (or go to the end of this post). Maybe she has to dramatize the writing trade a bit because she makes her living, in part, talking about writing as a practice, like she talks about Zen as a practice. Zen is harder than writing. On Zen retreats you eat watery soup sporting the occasional scallion and sit cross-legged, back straight, for hours. You try to solve koans, which make your brain ache and your self-confidence hurt. And Zen masters can be tougher than readers who skewer writers’ work, their pens dripping red ink.

Goldberg’s book is about writing, in passing. It’s really about living among friends while maintaining two demanding disciplines. She’s a strong, adventurous woman. She values friendships. She loves reading and writing. We go on hikes with her as she thinks about Zen and gets perilously lost, we learn about a doctor’s diagnosis she calls “hard,” we travel to various parts of the world with her and we find out, almost in passing, that her mother neglected her. I especially enjoyed reading about Goldberg’s travels in Japan, about her surprising time in a Zen monastery, and about her obsessive reading of “Musashi,” a book about a great Japanese sword fighter. She found the book while in Japan and read it on a train to the exclusion of all else. This travel with Musashi growing in her heart is a very nice piece of writing. Here Goldberg describes the aftermath of Musashi’s victory over his greatest rival and her reaction as she reads:

Musashi walks the ten paces over to the prone body and kneels. No sign of anguish or regret on Ganryu’s face. Only satisfaction at having fought a good fight. This man is the most valiant of all Musashi’s adversaries. Never in his life would he meet another opponent like this. He bows. The battle is over.

I am crying uncontrollably. Nose running, I grope for a tissue I do not have.

But Musashi’s victory proves nothing. More people want to challenge him. His only resolve lies in the depth of his heart. He knows the confused mind is a shadow that people beat their heads against.

My head jerked up. Where was Michèle?

Michèle, her traveling companion, had already left the train and Goldberg was going to have to backtrack to find her though she couldn’t understand the language or the signage.

I read to the end of “The Great Spring,” wondering where we’d land. “If we can stand still and attentive in our lives and not run away, even right in the middle of the ruins, we will find fertile ground.”

She’s talking about living but she’s also talking about writing.

Hold still. Be quiet. Pay attention. Now, write.

And, all you sensitive writers out there, try to hang on to your skin.

Here’s the book review, which ran in GateHouse Media newspapers and websites.

30-year anniversary of ‘Writing Down the Bones’

The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life
By Natalie Goldberg. Shambhala, Boulder, 2016. 207 pages. $22.95.

Many hold Natalie Goldberg in their hearts as their first, or perhaps most important, writing guru. And many will appreciate her newest book, a circling back to the essentials — writing and practice. Things are more nuanced now, with timely considerations about living and the end of living. In Zen as in life, it’s best not to forget where we’re headed.

Thirty years ago Natalie Goldberg published her first and most widely read book on writing, “Writing Down the Bones.” She’s written many books since, including memoir, books on writing, fiction and poetry. She also made the documentary film, with Mary Feidt, “Tangled Up in Bob: Searching for Bob Dylan.” An anniversary edition of “Writing Down the Bones” has just been released along with this new book of essays, “The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life.”

Goldberg, now in her late sixties, maintains two practices, Zen and writing, and she frequently teaches at workshops and retreats in the United States and abroad. Goldberg is a hiker, a good friend, an abstract painter, a knowledgeable reader and a fine essayist. In her short pieces, she comes to readers a robust, adventurous, self-aware and strong woman with clear boundaries. She lets us know she’s also just begun dealing with a serious health issue she declines to name outright. This admission, in the introduction, opens a vulnerability that deepens the scope of her considerations. When she writes, toward the end of the book, that longtime students used to warn newer ones that she is not warm and fuzzy, readers have already figured that out. Her boundaries protect the vulnerable part of her. “… I felt like [my students] would eat me alive.”

There are lots of reasons to read this book. Writers and Buddhists will recognize the struggles of a kindred spirit. Students of the essay will admire each piece’s ambitious range — the “zigzag” — before homing in. Readers, artists and and fans of the arts will like her spirit as she heads right to the source to learn more about someone like Cormac McCarthy or Robert Zimmerman a k a Bob Dylan. Students of human nature will see a strong woman take change and wrestle for an advantage. Maybe you want courage. “Continue under all circumstances,” she says about writing. “No excuses.” Why read further than this, on the third page of the introduction? All of the above.

I suspect Goldberg has found ways to handle second thoughts because she regularly takes courageous stands and remains standing. In “Losing Katherine” she mentions that she wrote a book titled “The Great Failure” about her Zen teacher sleeping with his students. She says that people didn’t want her to write this book and one of her dearest friends, Katherine, became estranged for four years because she didn’t like the book. This essay presents a beautiful portrait of Katherine who dies after a fall. “We are no different from a flower, I think. It gives off its radiance—then dies.” Goldberg then concludes with a haiku she wrote.

“Lost Purse” is fun and shares a couple of good lessons. Goldberg loses her purse during a writing workshop she’s leading one weekend in Lenox, Mass. We are treated to her key message to writers, one she promises them if they find her purse. The essay concludes with a second message, one that requires a sense of humor and a bit more thought.

In “Another New year” we are stopped in our tracks when Goldberg reconsiders her lifelong “elixir,” as she calls it. “In the past my most reliable elixir had been to continue under all circumstances. But now the biting thought: someday no circumstances will exist.”

We all nod yes as she continues, “Daily life is so seductive: we believe if we keep moving we can finally catch up, get our bills paid for all time.”

The three essays I cited come from the back of the book — Losing. There are other sections less concerned with loss and death. They are daily life under the microscope, and they nudge us further on. We are ready for Losing when we get there.

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at Read her blog at or follow her @RaeAF.

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