by: Tina B. Tessina, PhD
What a thrill for writers to hear Natalie Goldberg, author of "Thunder and Lighting", or the "mother of free writing," as show host Barbara DeMarco-Barrett called her. Imagine a whole hour of listening to the author of "Writing Down The Bones", the book that energized a whole generation of writers. When I interviewed DeMarco-Barrett later, she said, "it was great talking with her, something I would not normally do since I would never call her or email her and say, hey, I'm gonna be in your neighborhood, how about if I take you out to lunch and pick your brain?"
Natalie stunned the writing world with her first book, for which she said she practiced for thirteen years, free writing for at least twenty minutes every day for that whole time. Writing Down the Bones incorporates her long study of Zen Buddhist philosophy, and her daily writing became part of her Zen practice. She said she never had a writing class or writing teacher, and her Zen master became her teacher of writing.
Her years of free writing had primed her for the book.
Free writing is the practice of keeping the pen moving on paper, writing anything that comes into your mind without critical analysis. It is a great help to writers who have experienced writers' block, as well as to beginners who are intimidated by the idea of filling pages with words. DeMarco-Barrett says she teaches free writing in her writing classes because it "trains the mind to keep the internal critic or editor, out of the way until that critic is needed, not until revision time. We are so into perfection, but writing doesn't come out perfect from the start. The main thing is getting a first draft, ‘allowing’ yourself to put down a first draft that may be not be so good. Then, in the revision process, you bring that editor out and let her do her work, helping you to refine and tweak until you're happy with the piece."
Goldberg said she kept her free writing notebooks, and was able to use them to write her first book, which she said just "flowed through" her. Her years of free writing had primed her for the book.
Beware, said Goldberg, reading the introduction from "Thunder and Lightning." Beginning to write sets things in motion that you won't expect. She recounted tales of how overwhelmed she was after the unexpected success of her first book. Every published writer knows how that feels, and the panic that can happen when your writing is first exposed to public critique. It's a comfort to hear that one so famous had to overcome the same problems.
The conversation between these two writing teachers, journalist DeMarco-Barrett, and author Goldberg, was rich with real experiences and interesting stories. DeMarco’s questions prompted Goldberg to talk about teaching her own students. Hearing these two writing teachers share their personal and teaching experiences was fascinating.
Goldberg's voice has a grating, nasal quality, which would be distracting, but the wisdom of her words soon distracted me from my initial reaction. She sounded so unlike I thought she would sound. She practices Zen and I thought she'd sound much more ethereal. She has this heavy New York accent, though she's lived away from New York for many years, and perhaps because I'm from back east, her accent humanized her for me!
Don't lie. Don't steal.
In Thunder and Lightning : Cracking Open the Writer's Craft, Goldberg talks about her unstructured childhood, which led to an undisciplined mind, and a hunger for rules. In the following passage, she explains how she found the structure she craved in Zen practice, and began to use its form to organize her mind and her writing.
"Life was staggering. I needed organization... In Zen there were precepts: Don't lie. Don't steal. Don't create suffering through sexuality... So when I tried to figure out how to write... I looked to the Eastern world for hints. I copied the structure of meditation. Sitting had a time limit. OK, writing would, too. At the beginning I wrote for rounds of ten minutes, eventually increasing them to twenty and thirty. I kept my hand consistently moving - as in meditation we couldn't move - for the full time...
"Writing became a practice. I wrote under all circumstances, and once I started, I continued until the time was up. Especially in the early days, like Zen students who sit together, I wrote with others, not alone. I let Zen inform my writing practice because I needed writing to be rooted - not Natalie's creative idea. I wanted writing practice to be backed by two-thousand years of watching the mind. ....I was serious." She's a great inspiration to any writer who is also serious.
"I want my listeners, who it seems are both writer wannabe’s and professional writers, to feel that they are hearing an interview they haven't heard, and questions--and answers--they haven't heard, either. I want them to know it's not canned, it's intelligent, it's alive--as well as being live--and if they learn about a writer previously unknown, or they pick up a bit of advice or a tip or technique, then all the better.," says DeMarco-Barrett about the show.
Thanks, Barbara, for giving us this intimate time with Natalie Goldberg. For writers and wannabe’s this is a great book, by a powerful writer, and it was an inspiring conversation on Writers On Writing.
©2002 Tina B. Tessina