zen and the art of natalie goldberg
I feel as if I met Natalie Goldberg when I was sixteen. I walked into myfirst writing class wide-eyed and eager and clutching a blue binder. My teacher looked up, smiled and opened a novel, finger drifting down the page. “Okay…balloons,” she said to us. “Go for ten minutes. Don’t stop. Don’t take your hand off the page. Ready? Go.”
This was writing practice, made famous by Goldberg’s first book, Writing Down the Bones. All through the year, my teacher referenced Natalie Goldberg as a groundbreaker in mind exploration through writing. It wasn’t until I started reading her myself, a year later, that I realized she is also a groundbreaker in her merging of writing and spirituality. It is always her books I reach for when I hit a block, writing or otherwise.
After years of living and studying at spiritual centres across the US, writing six books and discovering that she is also a painter, Natalie is currently in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is studying Zen and working toward becoming a teacher. She pauses at length before she answers questions. She speaks of this Zen-focused phase of her life with great love in her voice, and speaks of her past writing phases equally, insisting that these practices deepen each other, and are, in fact, the same thing.
Why do we write? Why do I? How do the cries of the spiritual path and the writing path boom with such equal volume in Goldberg’s heart? In my heart? All these things fell out of my pen when I prepared my list of interview questions. I’m glad I heard her voice.
Shara Stewart I have always found your work to be quite outspoken on spirituality and creativity. How do you see the relationship between these two worlds?
Natalie Goldberg Writing and Zen for me are completely interconnected. The relationship is seamless for me. Really, what is writing? You have a pen, paper, these are your tools. The other tool is the mind, where your thoughts, ideas and words come from. The better you understand and know the mind, the better you can work with your tools. And what is Zen, but the study of mind? Writing is a practice for me, like someone else would do sitting or walking, writing is a true spiritual practice.
In the epilogue of my latest book, I actually have the chutzpah, do you know chutzpah? It’s a Yiddish word…I have the nerve to declare writing prac- tice as a legitimate Zen practice. I thought, okay, I’m coming out with it, I’m just going to say it.
SS And yet your teacher, Katagiri Roshi, told you that Zen and writing are parallel paths, but not the same path…you had to choose, didn’t you?
NG It’s sort of a tricky thing because he gave me a double whammy. I went for writing, completely, but it just wasn’t enough without more Zen practice. So writing is wonderful, and it is a practice, but I actually feel like I now need it backed by the traditional Zen practices of sitting and walking and following the Buddhist precepts. Right now, I’m living in St. Paul and studying Zen, to probably become a teacher. I’ve chosen the path of writing, but I think I’m studying traditional Zen right now to bring the writing path deeper.
SS I was interested by a passage in your new book, Thunder and Lightning, where you mention that publishing your first book, Writing Down the Bones, broke your heart. What happened?
NG It was hard for me because I didn’t know what it meant to go public. Writing the book was a very deep thing between me and my teacher. When I went public, people took the book on very different levels than I had meant it. They took it on the level where they were at. People wanted to use it to make best-selling books, and they also projected on me a lot, and suddenly I wasn’t just a person. It was very uncomfortable and it was also very painful.
I think I was very naïve about the world. People would take a workshop with me, just one workshop, and then they’d start teaching Writing Down the Bones. I was shocked, because this is really deep stuff connected to a very deep Zen practice.
SS How do you feel about it now? It’s been sixteen years since you published that book.
NG At this point, I don’t care what they do. I understand now that when something goes public, I lose control, I don’t know where it’ll go. I put out what I know, I put it out in the best way I can, and then I have to let it go.
But when I said that it broke my heart, I mean that I gave the deepest thing I knew, and people ran with it in ways that I was shocked by.
SS So why does a writer write, why do writers publish what they write, put it out there?
NG You can write for sheer pleasure, and to get to know yourself and things like that. But if you go the next step and want to become a writer, part of what a writer does is publish. There’s something a little bit stinky if you write all these novels and just keep them in your notebook and don’t make any effort to share them with the world. Part of why writers write is because they want to speak!
Writing practice is a way to get in touch with your inside, the internal. Then you have the job of finding a structure to carry the insides outside into the world. And that’s the difference probably between someone who just enjoys writing and someone who’s a writer. The writer does the second step too. Part of going all the way is publishing, putting it out there, and then being eaten alive, getting your heart broken. It’s not romantic.
SS How is the ego involved in writing?
NG Well, I call it monkey mind. It tries to undermine all your writing, telling you constantly you’re no good, you shouldn’t be writing, etc, etc. I’ve learned to work with monkey mind, I don’t pay attention to it or let it run my life. Some people follow that voice like it was God, but really, it’s just a little mechanical thing in our minds that is repeating, “You’re no good, I hate you, you shouldn’t try this.” I found out that monkey mind is the guardian at the gate. It guards the jewels. You have to be willing to stand up to it under all circumstances…the jewels aren’t going to be given easily to you.
SS In your early writing days you used the phrase “trust the mind” as almost a mantra. It seems as though this is a struggle for any writer, as well as spiritual aspirant. How did you take these words and make them real?
NG Writing practice was the way for me. With writing practice I began to have a relationship with my mind, and began to accept what comes through it, and not constantly edit and crush who I am. There’s no place where you “get there,” there’s no point where “now I trust my mind.” You just deepen your relationship over time.
SS What is it that keeps you publishing books?
NG Well, I’m a writer and that’s my job.
SS What keeps you sitting zazen?
NG I have a crazy mind. It’s the way to stop the world for a little bit.
Shara Stewart wrote her first story, The Little Grape Vine, at age four, with a purple felt marker. It has long since disappeared. After a long wander through Canada last year, she has settled in Victoria, BC, where she works as an organic gardening educator and is studying massage. She makes phenomenal pumpkin tofu cheesecake and is planning to write a book relatively soon.
Natalie Goldberg is the author of numerous books,including her latest, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer s Craft. Also check out her book Living Color: a Writer Paints Her World, to see more of her paintings in their brilliant colours.