I am on a backpacking trip in Frijoles Canyon, part of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. We followed a trail along a stream that cut through pink-and-orange cliffs. In the morning we saw deer — mule deer, I am almost certain that’s what they were — first one, and a little later, two. When they saw us, they didn’t run so much as hop away.
Now I am leaning against a boulder. The stone cools my back. Reader, even though you are not here with me, I want you to look up at the sky. Do you see it? It is a big sky. If you’ve never been this far west, then imagine standing beneath the sky in Ohio: a two-lane highway, the day gray, you can see the horizon all around. Nothing disturbs that view but an occasional farmhouse with a row of Russian olives as a windbreak or a white square building on the side of the road that says EAT in thin neon. The bottom line of the E and the left branch of the A are broken off.
So, either in New Mexico or Ohio, we are under a big sky. That big sky is wild mind. I’m going to climb up to that sky straight over our heads and put one dot on it with a Magic Marker. See that dot? That dot is what Zen calls monkey mind or what Western psychology calls part of conscious mind. We give all our attention to that one dot. So when it says we can’t write, that we’re no good, are failures, fools for even picking up a pen, we listen to it.
This is how it works: you’ve always wanted to be a writer, but instead you decide you should become a health-care worker. You go to school for four years. You get a degree in social work. You are at your first day of your new job, listening to an orientation, and you realize you really did want to be a writer. You quit your job, go to the library with a notebook, and begin page one of the great American novel. You are halfway through page one when you decide it is too hard to be a writer. You want to open a cafe so writers can come in and sip the best caffe latte and write all afternoon. You open the cafe. You are serving caffe latte to all the writers in your town. It is a Tuesday. You look out at your customers and see they are writing and you are not. You want to write.
This goes on endlessly. This is monkey mind. This is how we drift. We listen and get tossed away. We put all our attention on that one dot. Meanwhile, wild mind surrounds us. Western psychology calls wild mind the unconscious, but I think the unconscious is a limiting term. If it is true that we are all interpenetrated and interconnected, then wild mind includes mountains, rivers, Cadillacs, humidity, plains, emeralds, poverty, old streets in London, snow, and moon. A river and a tree are not unconscious. They are part of wild mind. I do not consider even a dream unconscious. A dream is a being that travels from wild mind into the dot/monkey mind/conscious self to wake us up.
So our job as writers is not to diddle around our whole lives in the dot but to take one big step out of it and sink into the big sky and write from there. Let everything run through us and grab as much as we can of it with a pen and paper. Let yourself live in something that is already rightfully yours — your own wild mind.
I think what good psychotherapy does is help to bring you into wild mind, for you to learn to be comfortable there, rather than constantly grabbing a tidbit from wild mind and shoving it into the conscious mind, thereby trying to get control of it. This is what Zen, too, asks you to do: to sit down in the middle of your wild mind. This is all about a loss of control. This is what falling in love is, too: a loss of control.
Can you do this? Lose control and let wild mind take over? It is the best way to write. To live, too.
I flew to Tucson two weeks ago to see the Southwest region’s Junior Olympics. Mary, my friend, and Matt, Eddie’s eight-year-old son, flew with me. Matt had the window seat; I sat in the aisle and Mary was in the middle. As we took off in Albuquerque, there was a huge bang. I ignored the bang and was deep into reading Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez.
Mary yanked at my sleeve. “What was that?”
“Oh, nothing.” I turned to her, my eyes glazed over from reading.
“Nothing! Did you hear how loud it was?” she said, nervously.
Matt had on earphones and was listening to the Talking Heads. He didn’t hear anything.
“Don’t worry. Really, Mary, I won’t die in the air. I’ve always known it.”
Before the landing in Tucson, the pilot announced that a tire had blown at takeoff in Albuquerque and we were making an emergency landing. The stewardesses showed us the posture we should take: heads bent over our knees, hands under our thighs. They told us how to climb out the emergency exits and how to slide down the wings.
“You’re kidding!” I thought to myself. “This is the way it’s going to be? Right in the middle of my life — I still have to finish a book — I’m going to die!” I remembered I had two new handwritten chapters in my bag. I wanted to tear them out and stuff them in my pants. We were to leave our bags behind.
Mary had to take off her glasses. She clutched them in her hand. I whispered to her, “Put them down. Don’t worry. I’ll lead you out.”
I became focused. This might be it. These could be my last minutes alive. My breath became powerful, and as I bent over I felt such kind tenderness for my organs — my liver, heart, lungs — I thanked them. They were about to be crushed.
We hit the runway. The sound was excruciating and went on forever, but we landed fine. I sat up. We were alive.
Eddie met us at the airport in a rented white Lincoln with a red velvet interior. It was air-conditioned and that is all I cared about. It was 110 degrees in Tucson. I had almost lost my life to see kids run in that temperature. It was ridiculous, and none of the kids was even mine.
The next day we sat in the grandstand holding umbrellas out against the sun. I heard Mary tell everyone about our near-death experience. At one point I turned to her. “Are you sure we were on the same plane?” She was ecstatic to be alive. I only felt kinder toward my organs.
The kids ran like lightning. All of them were magnificent, and they were propelled by only what was inside them. When I saw the same kids walking around later in the grandstand or at the hotel pool, they were just little kids with skinny long legs, but on the track they owned the world. They belonged on the earth. They were their own people and I loved watching all of them. I didn’t care what state they were from or what team they were on.
I asked Matt after a relay where he ran particularly fast with boys two years older than he, “What do you think about when you run?”
He became serious. “You know, I think of nothing. I only see the track. The other runners disappear. In this race, everything turned red.”
That night I sat in the cool of evening by the pool. There were palm trees and stars in the sky. I sat there dreaming: to know you belong on the earth is a good thing. To know your body is your own and not someone else’s is a good thing.
What is writing’s equivalent? I asked myself.
I own my own mind. I claim my thoughts. My mouth and the words I say with it are mine and no one can take that away. I can’t write like Dostoevski or Henry Miller. I write like myself.
Then I thought of a meditation retreat I went on last month. For a lot of the people there it was their first retreat and many were my age. I’d been sitting for fifteen years. My legs and back hurt, too, from meditation, but there was something I knew that they didn’t know. I couldn’t really say what it was and if I did say it, it wouldn’t have helped anyway. What I knew was no big deal, but sitting for so long gave it to me. They just had to do it themselves.
That’s the way it was, I guessed. You have to do it. You have to run or write or sit. No one can do it for you. And this book, Wild Mind, I am writing now? I try to tell as much as I can so I can help. It doesn’t help. We have to do it. We help ourselves, and then we know something we can’t give away. It dies with us. The whole thing dies with us.
My great teacher, Katagiri Roshi, is sick now and I am very sad. I think about the six years I was with him in Minnesota. I want him to be well again for himself. I realize he has already given me everything. I do not need to be greedy and think I can get more from him. My job is to penetrate what I already know so that I live it day by day. So I am not separate from it.
When I finished writing Writing Down the Bones in Santa Fe in 1984, I went to visit Roshi in Minneapolis. I showed him the book. I said, “Roshi, I need a teacher again. The people in Santa Fe are crazy. They drift from one thing to another.”
He shook his head. “Don’t be so greedy. Writing is taking you very deep. Continue to write.”
“But Roshi,” I said to him, “it is so lonely.”
He lifted his eyebrows. “Is there anything wrong with loneliness?” he asked.
“No, I guess not,” I said.
Then we talked of other things. Suddenly, I interrupted him. “But Roshi, you have sentenced me to such loneliness. Writing is very lonely,” I stressed again.
“Anything you do deeply is very lonely. There are many Zen students here, but the ones that are going deep are very lonely.”
“Are you lonely?” I asked him.
“Of course,” he answered. “But I do not let it toss me away. It is just loneliness.”
So there you have it. There are days I think, how did I get into this writing? But here I am. And the truth is I wanted it.
I woke up this morning still with a terrible cold. It was the fourth morning like this. I said, “Get up, Nat. Just get up.” Instead, I lay there, staring at the ceiling for four hours. I finally rolled out of bed and dragged myself in a pink cotton dress down to the Galisteo Newsstand to write. There were lilacs and irises along the way.
Two men sitting together on an adobe wall called out as I passed, “Hey, nice day.”
Can’t they see I’m miserable? I said to myself. So what if it is a brilliant spring in Santa Fe?
During all the thick days of my divorce eight years ago, only one thing helped. I remembered Roshi saying, “Make positive effort for the good.” For me it meant, “Get up and get dressed. Just get up.” He meant to make human effort under all circumstances. If you make effort, beings seen and unseen will help. There are angels cheering for us when we lift our pens, because they know we want to do it. In this torrential moment we have decided to change the energy of the world. We are going to write down what we think. Right or wrong doesn’t matter. We are standing up and saying who we are. We begin with “I saw a blue horse.” No one can say there is no such thing as a blue horse, because we say there is.
Go ahead. Talk about what you see: the ceiling fan above your head, the red Coca-Cola paper cup, the white plastic knife. And if this isn’t enough to get you writing, knowing in this mighty moment that you create the universe, then remember me dragging my ass over to the Galisteo Newsstand to write on this supreme day when I think I’m dying of a cold.
I stop to blow my nose every ten minutes and I am sure right now I am the only one with the burden of writing. I do this not for you. I do it so I can shut up the gnawing, dim-witted critics in my brain who tell me I am nothing. Especially when I’m sick, they get pleasure out of kicking me in the teeth. “Make positive effort for the good.” Even though the monsters are screaming in your face, get over there — to the desk, the couch, the cafe — and begin to write.
I often call myself the Horatio Alger of writing. No one ever thought I should be a writer. There were no artists in my family. There were no books in my house. Palm readers, astrologers, psychics, all said I should be an accountant. Only last year did my determination burn new lines in my palm, so that a body worker looked at my hand and said I was “a potter, something creative with your hands.” I don’t know why I wanted it so bad. Mr. Clemente stood up in my ninth-grade English class and read us Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Dylan Thomas as if poetry meant something. Then he switched off the lights. It was pouring outside — a Long Island rain, rain that hits sidewalks and bounces, that soaks the grass and the space between grass.
Mr. Clemente said, “Put your heads down on your desks and listen to the rain.” I didn’t know then that I wanted to be a writer, but I knew this was magic and I wanted more and more of it.
English majors in college show up in my writing workshops years later, after trying a career in another field, because a dream was born in them back in school when they read Dostoevski, Thomas Mann, and Virginia Woolf, and they can’t get it out of their heads. So after a few years as computer programmers, they see it doesn’t give them that hard rain in the afternoon outside the window. They know there is something else and that it’s in their own brain. I honor English majors. It’s a dumb thing to major in. It leads nowhere. It’s good to be dumb, it allows us to love something for no reason. That’s the best kind of love.
After Writing Down the Bones came out, I called my parents in Florida.
“Mom, Leonard Cohen’s manager called me. He said he liked the book,” I told her long distance.
“Who’s Leonard Cohen?” my mother asked.
“He’s a famous songwriter,” I explained. I couldn’t impress her.
“Well, at least he’s Jewish,” my father chimed in on the extension phone.
This past April I did a workshop in South Carolina. I invited my parents to drive up and sit in. I hoped this time they would understand my success. Registration for the workshop was at seven Friday evening. The actual workshop began at seven-thirty. Since my plane arrived at five-thirty, I asked to be taken to my hotel to shower. Everyone at the workshop registered and milled around, wondering where I was. My parents were seated on a couch in the corner.
My picture is on the back of the Bones book. Someone spotted my mother. My mother and I resemble one another. My mother is in her seventies and I am forty. The woman who saw my mother nudged someone else. They looked from the book cover to my mother on the couch and then back again. “That must be her,” they decided. One of them shook her head. “This picture must have been taken years ago.”
“Writing’s a hard life,” the others laughed.
When I arrived, I wore clothes I had worn six months earlier when I visited my parents in Florida. In Florida, they hated the pants and jacket. At the workshop, the first thing my father said was, “I love your outfit and your hair looks terrific.” My hair had just been cut very short and usually they don’t like that. But suddenly at the workshop, I could do no wrong.
During breaks, people came up to my parents and asked, “Who does she take after?”
My father responded, “My wife and I are really very ordinary people. She did this all herself.”
To my amazement my parents not only sat in on the whole weekend, they also did all the writing assignments. At the end of one assignment, my father waved his hand wildly when it was time to read.
I wanted to ignore him, but finally I had to choose him. He read about me, how we stopped at the racetrack on the way home from college after my freshman year, and how I started to cry that I wanted to go home. He announced that he composed the whole thing in his head lying in bed in the hotel the night before. I stood in front of the room as he read, feeling ridiculous.
When he was done, what could I say? “Good,” I nodded. I turned my head. “Who else would like to read?”
“Wait a minute! Did you really like it?” he asked.
“Yes, it had a lot of detail.” I paused. “Unfortunately,” I added. Everyone laughed.
When we went out to dinner that night, my parents were all praise. I was increasingly uncomfortable, but I couldn’t say why. They loved all my outfits; they said they were actually learning things about writing.
On Sunday the workshop was over and we planned to drive to Charleston for two days to visit with each other and see the city. In the car, driving through the green rolling hills, suddenly my father wished I hadn’t worn the shorts I was wearing.
They imitated the way I talked during the workshop. “You know, how the mind moves,” my father said, his hands on the steering wheel and my mother’s hands flying in the air, the way I had used my hands in the workshop to explain the movement of the mind.
When we arrived at the 1890 bed-and-breakfast I had booked us in, my father was worried there was no air conditioning and he wanted to know where the elevator was. My mother gave me two pink cotton nightgowns, a present they’d brought from Florida.
As it neared dinner time, I was increasingly depressed and lonely, but I could not say why. After all, hadn’t I been successful, hadn’t they seen it? We changed for dinner. I walked out in one of the nightgowns my mother had just given me. I wore a leather belt around it and a pair of huaraches on my feet. My father didn’t notice. My mother’s face fell and she bit her lip. At the restaurant, when I excused myself for a moment, my mother told my father about the nightgown. When I returned to the table, my father said, “Your mother tells me you’re wearing the nightgown we just brought you for a gift.”
“Yes, I am,” I agreed and took a sip of water, then peered at the large menu and we ordered dinner.
Now it is September, several months later. I understand something now that I didn’t then. Success is different from love. I mixed them up. I thought if I wrote a book I’d get the attention I had wanted a very long time ago from my parents for just being alive and being myself. That wasn’t the only reason I wrote. I wrote because I never felt so whole and alive as I did when I wrote my first poem. I was complete. I created something from myself and nothing was wanting. That was the original flame. It was good enough, but along the way I mixed it all up. I thought it could heal the world; it could heal me; it could do everything, because I felt so good when I wrote. I took one step ahead of the ordinary good act of writing. I wanted to become successful, noticed, famous, so I could finally get the love and attention I didn’t get as a child.
I took writing outside writing. I took my life outside life. I wanted to throw it way ahead of me, thinking it would cure something way behind me. “If I get famous, then . . .” “If I get this book published, then . . .”
We need to let writing be writing and let it give us what it gives us in the moment. If we connect with anything in the moment, it frees us of the past, present, and future. We are just there. If we are chopping wood, we are chopping wood; brushing our teeth, brushing our teeth; walking, walking.
When I write a book, I am eager for it to be finished. That is stupid. It’s too long to wait. And what do I think will happen when it is finished? I’ll write another book — I’m a writer. So finally we have to forget expectation. Just write. It’s its own goodness. Success makes you ridiculous; you end up wearing nightgowns to dinner.
It was a Monday night. Renée and I were teaching a two-hour workshop in the old Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos. The topic was Raw and Enduring: The Writer’s Life. Renée taught the first hour: timed writing exercises about rawness. Then I got up. I felt like the old patriarchy: enduring.
I told them, “It doesn’t matter what you write in this workshop, what counts is that you continue.”
Someone shot up a hand: “Yeah, but isn’t timing important, too? You might be ready to publish, but the people you wrote about are still alive. Don’t you have to wait so you don’t hurt them?”
It seemed obvious that something was wrong with that question. You can’t sit around and wait for people to die. I flung off my long beard and white robe of the old school, the starter of writing practice, and told them a story from my life right then.
“Well, I don’t think you can wait around for the right time. When’s the right time? Two weeks ago I decided I had to tell my father I was going out with women. My parents are like the original Zen mind. They go out in the world and everything is new to them: tape recorders, video cameras.
“I called them long distance, and my father said, ‘Nat, I was in the library! I found this thick book. It said it had listed all the books that were ever published.’
“He must have found Books in Print. No big deal. Every bookstore has it, but to my father it was a phenomenon.
“ ‘Well, I thought I’d look you up. They didn’t have you. So then I had an idea. I’d look it up by title. Sure enough, there you were! I got so excited, I ran over to the librarian to show her. She said if I brought your book in, they’d put a sign in the front cover that I donated it. I ran to the bookstore and bought one and brought it in. Nat, I was so proud!’
“I hesitated. My mother, who was on the extension, said, ‘Nat, is something wrong? You’re not talking.’
“This was my opening. I walked through. ‘Dad, have you noticed that I haven’t mentioned men in the last year?’
“My mother, who already knew, gasped, ‘Oh, my God. No, Nat, no!’ I kept going.
“When I was done, my mother said, ‘This was some time to tell us.’
“When would have been the perfect time? Never. You can’t wait for that. You have to go ahead.”
I smiled at the class. “I guess you want to know what my father said?” I paused. “He asked me why I was telling him.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to keep things hidden.’
“He said, ‘You know I like to be kept in the dark.’ ”
We spend a lot of time holding up the white castles of our parents or society. These have nothing to do with ourselves or with the truth. Holding them up is a great burden. They’re not real castles anyway — more like the fake plaster castles of the cheap hamburger chain. My parents have already made their lives. This is my life now. I have to live it. If I say the truth and am condemned for it, then something is wrong. Yes, there are many truths, but I should be free to say mine. We are not encouraged to do that. And our society is in denial, too, so of course it is hard to say what you see as a writer and not feel crazy, not worry that you should wait until the perfect moment. We have to make the perfect moment. We can’t wait around.
This is a story that Katagiri Roshi told in his Wednesday-night lecture after I was at the Zen center for one year:
“A father and son were out fishing in a rowboat in the ocean. The father fell in the water and couldn’t swim. At that moment, the son had a great longing to enter a monastery and realize the truth. He rowed to shore.” End of story. I was used to Zen stories being like that — they just ended — but this was too much.
I shot up my hand. “Wait a minute, Roshi. What about the father? What happened to him?”
Roshi looked straight ahead. “He drowned.”
I paused. “What kind of religion is this, anyway?”
For a long time, I thought about that story. I didn’t get it. Now I understand.
But I will admit, walking down Morada Lane, the day after the Raw and Enduring workshop, looking out at Taos Mountain and the cottonwoods in the last days of August, I thought kindly of my father and his original mind that discovered Books in Print as a colossal new phenomenon.
I remembered one time when I was visiting my parents in December. It was the last day I was there and my father wanted to take my mother and me to his favorite place for breakfast. My father was very excited.
During the whole breakfast, he kept pushing forward the pink plastic tablecloth and looking underneath the table. At the end of the meal, after the waitress left us the bill, he looked under the table again. My mother and I both were wearing sandals. “You know,” he said, addressing me and my mother, “if someone just showed me your feet, I’d never figure out you were related to me.” He shook his head.
After remembering this, I caught myself thinking, “Now when do you think he’ll die? I can’t hurt him and publish anything.” I laughed. I was brave the night before, told everyone to go for it, and the next day my kind heart didn’t want to hurt anyone’s white castle. There you have it. We’re human beings. My writing self is braver than the rest of me. I follow her, trust her, but I know my human self, the part of me that is not a warrior of truth and words, lags behind. We have to take it all into consideration.
I was in a cafe in Paris last March, writing hard for a full morning. I wrote about lesbian bars. When I was done, my human self whined. “Oh, no, Nat. We’re not going to publish that, are we?”
My writer self turned to her, incredulous. “Ofcourse we are. What’s the problem? It came through us, we’ll say it.”
Yes, I will always be true to my writer self. She is very brave and fearless, but I’ve learned she doesn’t care about anything else, like my health, my contentment, my well-being. I used to follow her blindly and leave the rest of me homeless, shoeless, and hungry. Now I work to care for all of me, so when I do publish the truth, I’ll have a life to stand on, to steady me when I bring to light the deepest secrets of my soul.
Excerpted from Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life by Natalie Goldberg © 1990 Natalie Goldberg. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.