Natalie Goldberg’s first book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala), was a surprise hit when it was published in 1986. The first print run was ten thousand copies. In the past seventeen years it has sold more than a million copies in ten languages and is now in its thirty-third printing. Looking back, Goldberg says, “I’m a little embarrassed by the confidence of that thirty-six-year-old. I just told people what to do. Now I would say, ‘You have to find your own way.’ ”
What Goldberg told people to do was to make writing a practice in the way that meditation is a practice. “You have to pick up a pen and write regularly for specific periods of time,” she instructs, and put into words what you most need to say. The product, Goldberg contends, is not as important as the process. Ultimately, she says, writing is “a way to help you penetrate your life and become sane.”
Since Bones, as she calls it, she has written six more books, including Thunder and Lightning (Bantam), a follow-up to her first. Her most recent book is Top of My Lungs (Overlook Press), a collection of paintings and poems.
Goldberg grew up on Long Island, New York, and spent twelve years studying with Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi in Minnesota. She began writing and painting soon after beginning her Zen studies. “It was like spontaneous combustion,” she says. For the past seventeen years, she has lived in Taos, New Mexico, where she leads weeklong writing workshops and retreats. “We do a week of silence with sitting, walking, and writing,” she says. “It’s really like a Zen retreat, with the addition of timed writing periods.”
The magic of her method is the belief that anyone can write, that everyone has a voice and something to say. She advises writers to meet a friend for a “writing date” — a pleasant contradiction to the stereotype of the solitary, tortured writer. Through her writing and teaching, Goldberg has changed many writers’ idea of success. More important than getting published, she says, is finding satisfaction in the regular practice of writing.
When I tried to imagine Goldberg prior to this interview, I saw her sitting in a Southwest cafe, pen in hand, a wristwatch on the small round table in front of her. We met instead at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, where she leads writing and meditation workshops. Built by an heiress who had an art salon in New York City, the house has been temporary residence to many artists and writers over the years, including Georgia O’Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, and Carl Jung. The house’s boldly colored second-story windows, Goldberg told me, were painted by D.H. Lawrence for privacy in the bathroom. A lithe, vibrant, plainly dressed woman in her midfifties, Goldberg has a New York accent, which immediately endeared her to me, a former New Yorker. Her manner was warm, direct, funny, and extremely focused.
Zeiger: How has the geography of the Southwest affected your writing practice?
Goldberg: People have this dream of writing in the gorgeous mountains of Taos, but I say, “Just write wherever you are.” I love the land, and it’s important to me, and I think it’s essential to integrate where you live into your writing, but I don’t have any romantic notions about Southwest geography. Wherever you are is good enough.
I just came back from a year and a half in St. Paul, Minnesota, and writing was easier there because they have lots of cafes, and it was gray and rainy, and there was nothing to do but work. Here in Taos you want to daydream a lot, because the beautiful landscape takes you away.
Zeiger: What does a writing practice involve? What are its goals?
Goldberg: A writing practice is simply picking up a pen — a fast-writing pen, preferably, since the mind is faster than the hand — and doing timed writing exercises. The idea is to keep your hand moving for, say, ten minutes, and don’t cross anything out, because that makes space for your inner editor to come in. You are free to write the worst junk in America. After all, when we get on the tennis courts, we don’t expect to be a champion the first day. But somehow with writing, if we don’t write the opening paragraph of War and Peace the first time we sit down with our notebook, we feel we’ve failed.
You can use a computer, but I always say you should be able to write with a pen, because someday your computer might break, or you might not have access to electricity. It’s sort of like driving: you still have to know how to walk.
I consider writing an athletic activity: the more you practice, the better you get at it. The reason you keep your hand moving is because there’s often a conflict between the editor and the creator. The editor is always on our shoulder saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t write that. It’s no good.” But when you have to keep the hand moving, it’s an opportunity for the creator to have a say. All the other rules of writing practice support that primary rule of keeping your hand moving. The goal is to allow the written word to connect with your original mind, to write down the first thought you flash on, before the second and third thoughts come in.
Goldberg: Because that’s where the energy is. That’s where the alive, fresh vision is, before society, which we’ve internalized, takes over and teaches us to be polite and censor ourselves. Another way of putting it is that you need to trust what intuitively comes through you, rather than what you think you should be writing. What comes through you arises from a much larger place than that of the editor, the critic, or society.
Zeiger: What is that place, and how does it differ from the traditional view of the muse?
Goldberg: I call that place “wild mind.” Wild mind isn’t just your mind; it’s the whole world moving through you. With it, you give voice to a very large life, even though you might only be talking about your grandmother’s closet with its particular wallpaper and floor. It’s an awareness of everything through one thing.
When we think of the muse visiting, we think of something coming down from on high and helping us. Wild mind is available to everyone; you don’t have to seduce it to get it to come to you. When I think of wild mind, I think, Big sky. Usually we put a black dot in the sky and pay attention to just that dot: I don’t like myself, or I’m unhappy. With wild mind, you live with the whole sky. It’s very different from the idea of a muse, which is something outside yourself that appears and magically helps you.
I knew somehow that I wanted to write, and I knew I couldn’t learn to do it through traditional writing classes. . . . I had to begin with what I knew, something no one could tell me I was wrong about. And so I studied my mind.
Zeiger: What about great writers who never meditated or had a writing practice? How did they get in touch with wild mind?
Goldberg: I think the great writers who never did formal meditation were meditating through their art: really concentrating, being present, examining their own minds. That’s why I love literature: it’s the place where I discovered wild mind in Western culture.
Zeiger: Is getting in touch with wild mind therapeutic?
Goldberg: It is if you see the goal of therapy as more than simply functioning better in the world. Wild mind does make you feel better, because it’s a release. It is also a way to become more alive. If therapy is about becoming alive, then, yes, that’s what it’s about.
Zeiger: Do you believe that writing practice makes one a better writer?
Goldberg: I do, because you are drawing on a much larger energy force, and so the possibilities are much greater. There’s a difference, though, between writing as practice and writing as art: Writing as practice is an acceptance of your whole mind and whatever comes through you, moment by moment. Writing as art is taking what comes through you and directing it. Writing practice is the whole ocean, but when you’re creating art, you dig a canal and direct the force of the water in a particular way.
Zeiger: In a practical sense, does that mean looking through your pages of free writing and selecting parts that you might want to craft?
Goldberg: That’s one thing. Also, writing practice teaches you what your obsessions are, what you keep coming back to. Your obsessions have energy, and you can use them. Writing offers you a chance to transform an obsession into a passion, which is a lot better than constantly focusing on the things that are eating you.
Zeiger: Where does the imagination come in?
Goldberg: Funny, but I don’t think about the imagination. I never even use that word. Instead of imagination, I think of my life, my memory, my feelings. Imagination is so overused it’s become a dead word in our society.
Zeiger: When I’m writing at my best, I feel as though the words come through me; I don’t create them. How does this tie in to what we’re talking about?
Goldberg: What you’re describing is contacting wild mind, and wild mind is not Genie. It’s not your little self. It’s the whole world coming through you, including our collective memories, our collective past. You see, there’s a part of us that is always awake, that takes in everything and remembers it. Our job as writers is to connect with that awake part of ourselves.
Zeiger: Not everyone understands what Zen is. Could you define it for us?
Goldberg: Zen is simply a practice of being present, moment by moment. So when you’re eating, you’re eating, and not thinking of the mortgage you have to pay. When you’re chewing, you’re chewing; when you’re crying, you’re crying; when you’re dying, you’re dying.
Zeiger: Tell us more about your Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi.
Goldberg: I studied with Katagiri Roshi in Minnesota for twelve years. He came to the U.S. to help Suzuki Roshi, the author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Katagiri Roshi has two books, Returning to Silence and You Have to Say Something. I was taken by him because he seemed very present to me; I felt really seen by him. Though he knew me for many years, whenever I walked in, he wasn’t full of ideas about who I was. He didn’t think, Oh, there’s Natalie. He saw me anew each time and addressed me in the moment. He was also very willing to tell me the truth, even if I didn’t like it. I wrote a book, Long Quiet Highway, about my relationship with him. With his backing, I was able to root the idea of writing practice in Zen Buddhism. Zen and writing work beautifully together, because really, where does a piece of writing come from? The mind. The better we understand the mind, the better we can work with it. Zen brought me closer to myself, closer to what it means to be a human being, to my own mind, to the fact that I’m not only living, but am going to die; that I’m dying all the time. It gave me an intimacy with myself.
Zeiger: I needed that intimacy when I was growing up in the fifties. No one talked about anything real. That’s why I turned to books.
Goldberg: That happened to me, too. Ironically it was when Zen crossed my path that my Jewish life came alive. Prior to that, I’d written good Jewish poems about the Holocaust and about marrying a non-Jew, but it was when Zen and Judaism combined that my heart broke open, and so did my voice. It gave me something to say, and gave my work a vitality.
Zeiger: Do you still feel yourself to be a Jew?
Goldberg: I feel very much a Jew. Actually Zen brought me deeper into being a Jew. At one point, during a retreat, I went to Katagiri Roshi and said, “The more I sit, the more Jewish I’m feeling.” And he said, “That makes sense. The more you sit, the more you become who you are.”
Zeiger: The Dalai Lama also urges us not to abandon the traditions in which we were raised, because they are a part of us.
Goldberg: Exactly. I’m not going to become a Japanese Zen master, just like I’m not going to become F. Scott Fitzgerald. I could be inspired by The Great Gatsby, but I’m not going to write The Great Gatsby 2 — or maybe I will, but it will take place in Brooklyn with potato latkes. What passes on is some life force, but not an imitation.
Zeiger: You mentioned the Holocaust. How did that affect you?
Goldberg: I don’t think there’s a Jew alive who isn’t affected by the Holocaust, even if they respond to it by repressing it and saying it doesn’t matter. It scares me. I sometimes find myself thinking, Oh, Nat, you wouldn’t have lasted a minute in the camps. Or I think, If someone were chasing me, could I run fast enough to get away? These thoughts just come up out of the blue. I’m in a crowded room, and I wonder, Can I get out of here if I need to? Maybe all minorities feel this way.
Zeiger: What role did Zen play in encouraging you to write and teach?
Goldberg: By my early twenties, I knew somehow that I wanted to write, and I knew I couldn’t learn to do it through traditional writing classes, where teachers criticized students’ work. I had to begin with what I knew, something no one could tell me I was wrong about. And so I studied my mind. Then I connected my study to this two-thousand-year-old tradition of watching the mind. As I wrote, I would discover things about my mind, how it would move, wander, settle. I would go and discuss my findings with Roshi, and he would say, “Yes, that’s how the mind works,” or, “No, it doesn’t work that way.” He’s the one who suggested that I make writing a practice.
After I wrote Bones, I began teaching writing from the inside out. Usually, writing teachers tell us what good writing is, but not how to get to it. If Bones had come out in 1950, it probably would have flopped, but in 1986 America was hungry for it. If I hadn’t written Bones, someone else would have, because the time was ripe. There were a few good books on the writing shelf, like Peter Elbow’s Writing without Teachers, and Dorothea Brandt’s Becoming a Writer, and Brenda Euland’s If You Want to Write. But interest in Bones crossed every cultural line. Vice-presidents of insurance companies in Florida bought it, and so did quarry workers in Missouri. It was as though people were starving to write, but they didn’t know how, because the way writing was taught didn’t work for them. I think the idea of writing as a practice freed them up. It meant that they could trust their minds, that they were allowed to fail, and this helped them develop confidence in their own abilities. But that wasn’t all. I also told readers how to write. I told them: “Pick up the pen, take out a watch, and keep your hand moving.”
Zeiger: You talk about how Zen practice and writing practice are aligned. When you sit and follow your breath, or engage in whatever meditation technique you use, do you experience the same kinds of things as when you practice writing?
Goldberg: One difference is, when I’m writing, I’m physically doing something. I’m holding a pen in my hand, I’m moving my hand across the page, and I’m recording my thoughts as they come through me. When I’m meditating, I’m relatively still. My legs are crossed, my back is straight, and I’m using the breath to anchor my mind. I’m letting go of my thoughts by returning to the breath. With writing, I let go of the thoughts by putting them down and moving on.
I’m more adept at writing practice, because I’ve given my life to it. When I write, my self disappears. That’s ultimately what happens with Zen practice too, but I linger more on my human life with Zen, whereas with writing I’m willing to give it over completely. When I’m done writing, I feel more refreshed, as if I’ve eaten and digested my angst. The same thing can occur with meditation for me, but in a lesser way. Writing is more alive.
Zeiger: Isn’t the ultimate goal of meditation to quiet the mind?
Goldberg: There is no ultimate goal in meditation. Meditation is an acceptance of the mind, however it comes to you. And the mind changes all the time, just as the ocean waves change. Sometimes the water is turbulent, sometimes calm. Thoughts rise and then disappear; you don’t grab hold of them. The heart beats, the lungs breathe, and the mind continues to produce thoughts. Even if you’ve practiced for a long time, it will still produce thoughts, but you’re no longer thrown by them. You don’t have control of your mind; it goes where it wants to go. But with practice, you can have a relationship with it.
Zeiger: Do you feel it’s important for people to work with a writing teacher?
Goldberg: I think that, at some point in one’s life, it’s good to have a teacher, because a teacher can reflect you back to yourself. Katagiri Roshi once said to me, “I see that you’re Buddha, but you don’t see it. You only see the greatness in other people. When you see it in yourself, that’s what being awake is.” To be a Buddha is to close the gap between who you think you are and the greatness of being human. It’s not about being conceited or selfish. It’s just a deep acceptance of what it is to be human, to have an open heart, to be generous. Often I’ll have students who write exquisitely, but there’s something missing because they are not connected with their own writing, with their own large human life. I call it “the gap”: the distance between who we think we are and who we really are, which is something much greater.
If you don’t have a teacher, you can close that gap by going back and rereading your work two weeks later, or reading it aloud to another person who listens and makes no comment. But I do think a good teacher is helpful. Often when I teach students something that is in my books, even when they’ve read the books, they say, “I’ve never heard that before.” Perhaps hearing it from a real human being helps them to understand. That’s why I can’t just say, “Here’s the book.” I have to keep teaching, because a book lacks something that you get from human transmission. In Zen it’s very important to hand the tradition from person to person, teacher to student.
I tell my students to study with a teacher who is actively writing. Don’t study with a teacher who wants to write but isn’t, because the reason they are not writing is probably that their critical mind is too strong. If they can put themselves down that much, they can easily turn that harsh critic on their students. A writer who is actively writing has compassion.
Zeiger: Many beginning writers don’t know where to start.
Goldberg: When people try to start writing, they’re often resistant to it. They have to wash the floor first, or have the room in perfect order. This is because the mind is afraid of what might come up if it’s allowed to wander freely. I try to help people identify their resistances and work with them, instead of being thrown by them. A simple example is that, when I pick up the pen, I get sleepy and want to take a nap. But I’ve learned not to be thrown by that.
The closer I am to good writing, to really expressing what’s in my heart, the louder my “monkey mind” tries to stop me by screaming that what I’m writing is awful. I’ve come to understand that when the monkey mind gets loud, I’m really getting close.
Zeiger: What do you mean by “monkey mind”?
Goldberg: “Monkey mind” is a Buddhist term for the mind that is afraid and runs all over and never settles: the mind that wants to hold on to things, to control them. You might also call it the critic or editor, but they are more culturally specific voices. Monkey mind is more innate and essential to the workings of the human mind.
When the monkey mind tells us our writing is bad, it’s actually testing us. It’s asking: “Are you willing to stand up under trying circumstances? Are you willing to face your own inner critic?” After years of being tested by my monkey mind, I’ve come to see that the monkey mind and the human heart are not really at odds. Monkey mind makes sure you’re ready, that you have the perseverance to tell the truth.
Zeiger: Why do so many people want to write?
Goldberg: I think American society alienates us from ourselves, and we have a great need to reconnect. There is so much more to life than buying things. Human beings yearn to connect and to tell our stories before we die. Writing is a uniquely human activity: ants and trees and elephants don’t do it. I believe the desire to write is in each one of us. Not everyone’s going to produce the great American novel, but we all have a need to express ourselves. Sometimes, of course, we want to write, but when we get down to it, there’s resistance, because the ego gets scared.
Zeiger: Writing is both a lure and a threat.
Goldberg: That’s true of everything we love, even going on vacation: Before it, we think, Oh, I shouldn’t go. It’s too much work. But then we’re on it and we think, This is heaven. Why don’t I just do this?
Zeiger: What is the difference between speaking our stories and writing them down?
Goldberg: Writing it down is more intimate because, first of all, you are developing a relationship among your hand, your arm, your shoulder, your heart, and your mind. Then, because the story is recorded, you have a chance to read it later, so you can see who you are and come home to yourself. It’s easy for us to flap our gums and not hear ourselves or forget what we said, but with writing, there’s a record. You’re responsible.
Zeiger: And it’s a way of saying that one’s story is important enough to record. We stay alive through the written word. I have poems written by my grandfather, and when I read them, there he is.
Goldberg: Exactly, because you have something physical — the paper — to hold and pass on. And if you read his words aloud, you’re breathing his breath. So, through writing, we can keep breathing even after we’ve passed on.
Zeiger: I, too, lead writing workshops, and I’ve noticed that I have a preponderance of women students. Is the same true for you?
Goldberg: I do have mostly women, about 80 percent. I think men are more afraid of intimacy, relationship, and communication, and that keeps them from attending. I don’t think it’s because they don’t need affirmation or because they are more solitary by nature. They also don’t give themselves such simple pleasures as a week just to write. The men who do come to my workshops love it and really take to it.
Zeiger: Is there anything inherently good about more people writing? They might enjoy expressing themselves, but from the point of view of the academy, is it good to have a lot of mediocre writers around?
Goldberg: I think that the more people express themselves, the more great literature will emerge. Also, when there is a writing renaissance, it supports the life of the writer, because it produces readers who understand the process and have more compassion for us poor writers.
About the academy: Although my books are now assigned or recommended reading at some colleges, most don’t want me. I don’t know if I’m threatening, or if what I do just isn’t legitimate in their eyes. It’s as if I’m doing something revolutionary. Institutions are slow to change, and I believe writing practice really does bring about change.
Zeiger: In Thunder and Lightning you recommend certain books to your readers and encourage them to read more.
Goldberg: I have had many students come to me who want to be writers, but who never read. All my workshops have assigned reading lists, with works by Ha Jin, Leslie Marmon Silko, Vivian Gornick, Sapphire. The list changes all the time, because the books I teach must be alive for me.
I tell students to read deeply — which doesn’t mean reading all the great literature, but just reading carefully, really studying the mind of the author rather than whipping through the book. Reading is important because when you read, you enter the mind of an author, and so you get to study a practiced mind. How do writers create structure in a book? How do they turn phrases and present facts?
Zeiger: In a world with so much suffering, what’s the point of sitting in a cafe and writing?
Goldberg: Writing practice is always political in that you’re not blending into the majority; you’re not just thinking what you’re told to think. My writing is political, even if what I write about isn’t. The act of writing is the act of speaking up, of being alive. When you’re alive and connected and awake to details, you’re less likely to be quiet when bombs are dropping. One reason we’re so quick to drop bombs is that we see the world as abstract and removed. If everyone in our country had a regular writing practice and a true relationship to their mind, we wouldn’t be as likely to swallow slogans or be ruled by fear.
Zeiger: Where does ambition fit in?
Goldberg: We sometimes think ambition is a bad word. Many years ago, I went to a therapist, and after my first session she said, “I see two things about you: you’re ambitious, and you need a lot of solitude.”
At first I was insulted at being told I was ambitious, but I’ve come to understand that ambition directed toward the right goal is a wonderful force. You have to have some ambition to write. You have to be willing to meet the world. But if ambition runs ahead of you and pulls you along too fast, it’s not healthy.
Zeiger: Do you do a lot of editing of your own work?
Goldberg: I don’t know if I’d use the word editing. For me, that word brings out my internal censor. But yes, I look through it to see if I’ve repeated a word, and to make sure that each paragraph has something concrete in it: a picture, usually, because I’m visual-minded. As I get older, I edit more because I want to keep refining. But Writing Down the Bones was never edited. I wrote chapter after chapter. Of course, by the time I wrote the book, I’d been teaching the practice for thirteen years.
Zeiger: You’ve recently turned to painting as a public form of expression.
Goldberg: Painting was my secret darling until 1997, when I came out with the book Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World. I wrote it to find out what role painting played in my life. Before that, painting was just fun, and if I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t. I had no push, no drive. By writing about it, though, I became much more conscious of it, and I came to see how much painting fed my writing life. It made me very aware of the visual world, of details. In the silence of paint, I work out things for my writing. When I paint, I actually use the pen I write with. I go and sit in front of something and draw it with my pen, and then I color it in. For a few years I stopped painting, and my writing became like dry cereal. Painting is an underground river that feeds my writing life. When I wrote Living Color, I found out that many writers have a second art form that is their delight, because in it there is not a lot of pressure on them.
When people try to start writing, they’re often resistant to it. They have to wash the floor first, or have the room in perfect order. This is because the mind is afraid of what might come up if it’s allowed to wander freely.
Zeiger: What are you working on now?
Goldberg: I’m working on a book about the two most important men in my life, my father and Katagiri Roshi, and how I took their power. I learned about power from them, and I also learned to stand up to them, so I could find my own power apart from them. Katagiri Roshi died before I was able to stand up to him, and so I’ve had to stand up to him in my mind. It mostly has to do with realizing how my way differs from his. I’ve found that I need to let go of strict Japanese Zen practice. At fifty-five, I’m integrating his teaching with being an American. I’m trusting myself more and letting things unfold.
Zeiger: Some people seem to think you have to suffer in order to create.
Goldberg: No need to worry: you will suffer. Even if you’re quite enlightened, your body will hurt, and you will die someday; you will leave the people you love. So we don’t have to romanticize the suffering artist. The important thing is not to add to our suffering, not to pour gasoline on top and then light it. Writing comes from the essential suffering, not from the extra drama.
This reminds me of something Suzuki Roshi said. He said that asking, “What am I doing with my life?” is like trying to put a horse on top of a horse and then ride it. It’s hard enough to get on one horse and ride; it’s impossible to ride two horses, one on top of the other. So just get on your horse, your human life, and ride; don’t think about suffering, creativity, or imagination. Just pick up the pen and go.