The Writing Life: An Interview With Natalie Goldberg

The author of "Writing Down the Bones" on passion, art, and spiritual practice

Posted Jul 19, 2016

Natalie Goldberg shoots from the hip. The the author of Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Goldberg is an artist and teacher who doesn't suffer fools, mince words, or waiver in her passionate commitment to writing as a spiritual practice. In the 30 years since Writing Down the Bones became a phenomenon, selling over one million copies worldwide, she has been both prolific and profligate, spreading her talents across a number of artistic genres with 15 books, including the novel Banana Rose, The Great Failure, Living Color (which features Goldberg's paintings), and, most recently, The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life.  It was a great to speak to Goldberg recently about writing as an awakening path, and how to approach the blank page as an open invitation. 

Mark Matousek:  Congratulations on the 30th anniversary of Writing Down the Bones. There are two chapters from the book that have stuck with me all these years. The first was called, “Don’t Marry the Fly,” and focused on getting carried away with extraneous details in writing. The second was when you told your teacher about a moment of rapture, while staring out a window, and his response was, “Get back to work.”  As a writer and teacher of writing, how do you approach discipline in a way that isn’t punitive?

Natalie Goldberg:  Yes, that daydreaming seemed important at the time, but when I asked my teacher Katagiri Roshi about it, he said, “Oh, it’s just laziness. Get to work.” But as for discipline, I don’t even use that word. I think more about passion or love. What I’ve really learned is the way the mind moves, and how the mind works. Rather than discipline, I know how to seduce my mind. Does that make sense, Mark?

MM:  Perfect sense. But as a writer, how do you go about it?

NG:  It used to be with chocolate. I would put chocolate in my studio and say, “You know, Nat, there’s this chocolate you can have if you get over there.” And usually if I got over there, I would start writing. Sometimes I need get out of the house and go to a café and write. Sometimes I’ll write with other friends to get myself going. And sometimes I just say “Ok, Nat, enough. Go one hour. Keep your hand going.” I’ll do whatever it takes.

MM: Can you can use that practice with all kinds of projects: fiction, non-fiction, poetry?

NG:  I don’t know anything but writing practice, and so what I really do is direct that energy as if it were flowing down a river. Let’s say I’ve directed that energy into writing my latest book but suddenly, I really want to write about an onion. I don’t say to myself, “No, you have stay on the subject,” because I know that the longer I stay on the subject the more boring I get. So, if my mind wants to write about an onion, it might be a deeper way to go into what I’m working on, even though it might seem irrelevant. This is how I’ve learned to follow my mind.

MM:  Coming to your work was the first time I’d seen writing and spiritual practice combined in an harmonious way writer. Can you talk about how you integrate those two aspects of yourself?

NG:  There’s no separation for me. I consider writing a legitimate Zen practice and three years ago, I came out with a book called The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language. It’s a book that describes how writing is a practice and how my teaching is part of that practice. I direct the writing and create books but underneath, there’s always the river of practice happening. No good, no bad. Just do it.

MM:  What are some fundamentals of this approach that help students the most? 

NG:  Do timed writings. Keep your hand moving.  Shut up and write. Don’t talk about writing, just physically do it. Understand that writing is like an athletic activity. To play tennis well, you expect to keep practicing, but for some reason with writing, you think you should come out fresh the first time. That’s really what it comes down to. You don’t need to go to a therapist, you don’t need to do all kinds of things. If you want to write, you physically have to do it.

MM:  And just as with meditation, there is no end to the practice. No end to learning or being open to new information?

NG:  Exactly. But really you don’t need more information. If you’ve lived twenty years, you probably have enough material for the rest of your life.

MM: Your last memoir was about your encounter with cancer. 

NG:  Yes.  I had cancer for fourteen months and wrote a memoir about the experience.

MM:  My friend, Eve Ensler, wrote a memoir about cancer. Have you read it?

NG:  Yes, I read it and thought it was fabulous. Not only that, but it was really the only thing I could relate to about cancer.

MM:  How did writing support you during this illness?  

NG:  The odd thing is, that I wrote The Great Spring while I had cancer and it’s not about cancer. It was after I was done with cancer that I wrote a book about it. While I had cancer, I wrote these twenty-two personal essays about how I lived my life backed by Zen and writing. And I told all kinds of stories about going to Japan, about playing ball with my father… I wanted to record my life in case it was going to end soon. So, I wrote that and it was very comforting to have that practice in the afternoons in my living room. I just wrote about my life.

MM:  Were there stories you told that you had not wanted to tell before?

NG:  It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to tell them before, I just hadn’t gotten to telling them. In a way, the cancer became an ally because it stopped me from running around so much. I was able to settle down and write things I hadn’t had a chance to before. But I don’t mean to be flippant about cancer—it was hard, it was tough and it was scary. Then my next manuscript was about cancer because I had a whole new topic to write about. And because I wrote, it didn’t take over. Writing took the chaos out of cancer.

MM:  Did you discover nuances to the experience through writing that you weren’t aware of when you were going through it?

NG:  Yes. The first thing is how awful it was, the experience. You know, when you first go through it, you’re just trying to survive. But when I wrote about it, I really digested it. It was unbearable but I had practice behind me. So even though I couldn’t bear writing about it, I faced it every day.

MM:  How did Zen help with “taking the chaos out of cancer”?

NG:  Because I’ve been doing my practice for so long, I knew what to do even under really hard circumstances. If I didn’t have that, fear and projections over what was coming next could have taken over. But it was tough. Don’t think I was an angel. It was hell.

MM: How do you feel about the literary world and book publishing?

NG:  I love and care about literature, and great writers are our teachers. You’re studying their mind when you read their work. I think book publishing is fun, but I also know I’ve been very lucky. Friends open the door for me to write. Then I get paid attention to and it allows me to write other books. The Great Spring and the thirtieth anniversary of Bones just came out and while I’m happy and excited about that, I’ve already finished a new book. That’s what practice does. You don’t get caught. I have students that I tell, “If your book doesn’t sell or you can’t publish it, write another book. Quit sitting around.” The publishing world is a business, but it’s not any big deal. An editor is not your guru. Your agent is not your guru.

MM: Has the digitalizing of the written word changed your creative process?

NG:  Well, I hate it all (laughs).  But I have to say no, it hasn’t. I still write with pen and paper and have someone type it on a computer. But rewriting I do by hand. I print it out and leave three spaces between lines so there is a lot of room for me to edit. I do what I always did.

MM:  You’re so prolific and you write by hand. That’s great inspiration for a lot of people.

NG:  It’s great because anyone can afford a pen and spiral notebook.

MM:  One last question. When you were writing Writing Down the Bones, were you aware you were doing something original—something new that hadn’t been done before?

NG:  No, of course not. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’re just hoping that people won’t make fun of you. I had no idea how it would turn out.

MM:  That’s good news for first time authors who are worried about how their work will find its way in the world.

NG:  And if it doesn’t, that’s none of their business. Their job is to continue. That’s what’s important.