The True Secret of Writing: A Talk With Natalie Goldberg

Does writing reveal our true mind? And what do we do with that information?

Posted Apr 09, 2014

Natalie Goldberg is the author of Writing Down The Bones: Freeing The Writer Within, which broke open the world of creativity in the 1980s and started a revolution in the way we practice writing in this country. The book has sold over one million copies and been translated into 14 languages. Since then, Goldberg has written nine other books, including the novel Banana Rose. Her new book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language, is a masterful distillation of the "True Secret" workshops that Natalie has been giving for years near her home in Taos, New Mexico and around the globe. We talked about what this true secret is and why it matters so much for people who write -- and those who don't. 

MM: Why is writing so empowering, do you think?

NG: I don’t use the word empowering. Instead, what I say is you become who you are. You meet your true mind. We mostly live in discursive thinking. “I want this,” “I have to shop” “I’m mad at so and so.” That’s all discursive thinking. It’s on the surface. Writing practice brings you below the surface to really meet what you see, think and feel. And you keep meeting that and you build a spine, and you find out who you are. Because when we live in discursive thinking, we’re just lost. By going to that lower layer, we become who we are.

MM: Is it different than a painter becoming who he or she is? I know you paint as well.

NG: It’s no different. Painting is my darling pleasure. I don’t make it my practice. With painting, I have to keep working the surface until I bring out, and fulfill, what wants to come out; and, yes, I guess I do meet my own mind and use the rules of writing practice for painting. [But this practice can be applied to many things.] I have businessmen reading my books and saying this approach is about good business. Really, it’s about Zen practice and backed by 2,000 years of watching the mind. In business [as in everything else,] you have to have integrity. You have to know who you are, where you stand, and what you want.

MM: It’s the practical application of self-knowledge?

NG: I don’t use the words self-knowledge. It’s knowing who you are and when you know who you are, you’re actually connected to all beings. You don’t have to be as defensive and you can work with others in the world.

MM: But language helps us know who we are in a way that other art forms don’t?

NG: Oh, that’s a very good question. I can’t speak for all art forms. But because I have given my life to writing and to language, what I can say is that, since we all speak, it’s a very important medium that everyone should have access to. You know The Declaration of Independence where it mentions the pursuit of freedom and happiness? I’d like to put a dash and add ‘and writing.’ Because I think everyone should to be able to express themselves with the written word.

MM: Is writing a healing experience for you?

NG: Yes. But it’s not a personal healing. It’s a healing for all beings. When you heal yourself, you’re helping everyone. When you become clear, it helps everyone become clear.

MM: Why do you recommend writing with other people?

NG: When you’re alone, you can get lazy or listen too much to your monkey mind, the critic, and close yourself down. But when you’re writing with other people -- it’s why people run in groups and pairs. It gets you going. It’s almost like your training wheels. You learn about writing, you learn about how to do it, and you learn about who you are underneath discursive thinking. You’ve got to keep your hand going because the person across from you is keeping their hand going. You get to break through and then you build it so that when you’re alone, you can do it too.

MM: Do you still write with other people?

NG: Oh yeah, I need that. I can definitely do it on my own, too, but sometimes I need a kick. I’m lazy or I’m not becoming alive enough. I have a friend who I write with every Thursday evening for about an hour and a half. And then when I teach I always write with my students. I tell them I use them. And if you read The True Secret, it’s about my students. It’s about what happens in the writing practice.

MM: I teach memoir and have that experience often.

NG: Do you know my book, Old Friend from Far Away? Because it’s about the practice of writing memoir.

MM: I do.  What is it about memoir in particular that opens the heart for a writer?

NG: Well, I don’t know if it always does but I love memoir because it’s another way of studying the mind. Because what is memoir? It’s a French word and it means memory. Studying the way we remember and we don’t remember. The mind doesn’t move chronologically so memoir is not autobiography. Memoir is about memory, how memory moves and how the mind moves. What I tell my students is that memoir isn’t about your whole life. It could be your life with coffee, your life with Bob Dylan, listening to Bob Dylan. So again, for me, it’s really another study of memory. You get to meet your true mind, not what you think you should feel, see and think, but what you really feel, see and think. Does that make sense?

MM: It makes perfect sense. In memoir, we also get to question the story we’ve been telling ourselves, don’t you find?

NG: Oh that’s a wonderful question. I think it frees us up. If you write the story you’ve told about your mother a thousand times, you’re bored to death with it. I don’t like my mother, she’s mean to me and so on. But when you really hit it on the mark, it’s free of you and your mother. You’ve unhooked because you’ve gotten into the heart of the color, smell, and all the details, and you’re back there (in childhood). Otherwise it doesn’t work. In order to make a memoir really work, it has to be alive. You have to let go of the discursive mind. In order to be alive, you have to let go of what you think happened and let writing do writing, let it unfold.

MM: That leads to transformation?

NG: It frees you. You’re sprung free. But even that you can’t go for. If you’re really practicing, you just practice. Insights might come, but focusing on that becomes selfish. It’s not the point.

MM: Is it ever challenging for you to keep your space as a writer because you’re so well known as a teacher?

NG: No. I use the teaching, it’s not separate for me. They’re like two halves of a whole. I learn more about writing by teaching. I do have to say that I’ve pulled back from teaching this year and next year. I’m only teaching in France and I’m teaching at Upaya Zen Center because I am wanting to just write more. You have to protect it (your writing life) but not so much that it becomes precious.

MM: Self-absorbed.

NG: That generosity that you give to your students you then hopefully also give to your writing because you’re not writing for yourself, you’re also writing for all sentient beings. Even if you’re using your personal detail. And you have to use your personal details. Otherwise it’s boring. And no one wants to read that.

MM: That reminds me of a favorite passage from Writing Down the Bones. Do you mind if I read it to you? “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important.” Thank you for that.

NG: You're most welcome.