Natalie Goldberg Falls in Love: The Seductive Power of Haiku

The acclaimed author describes how three simple lines can change your life.

Posted Feb 22, 2021

Natalie Goldberg is the author of 15 books, including her classic Writing Down the Bones, which has sold over one million copies and revolutionized how we practice writing in this country. For more than 40 years, Goldberg has been a student of Zen Buddhism, teaching seminars on writing, painting, and spirituality to students around the world. Her book Living Color: Painting, Writing, and the Bones of Seeing describes painting as her second art form; other titles include Wild Mind, The Great SpringLet the Whole Thundering World Come Home, and Three Simple Lines: A Writers Pilgrimage Into the Heart and Homeland of Haiku, Goldberg's most recent book. From her home in Northern New Mexico, the prolific, takes-no-prisoners author spoke to me about writing, teaching, and her ongoing love affair with haiku, which she's been studying exhaustively and writing for the past few years.  

Mark Matousek: In your writing and teaching, you emphasize the importance of a "wild mind" and not running away from the mess of our lives as foundational aspects of creativity. In the epigraph to your new book, you quote Allen Ginsberg, "Follow your inner moonlight, don't hide the madness."  Why is "madness" so important in writing and life?

Natalie Goldberg: Well, that's where the energy is. [laughs]

Can you imagine reading something like, "Oh, I had a very nice time. It was very interesting. It was a lot of fun." How boring that would be! The real energy is with the agony, with being human, with how we really live and what it means. 

Only when we face that madness can we transform it. Otherwise, there's a kind of sheen over everything that does not create good writing. Becoming a writer means learning to going in your own direction and staying in it. You've got to be connected to yourself and your life and how you feel and experience things.

MM: You've written, "Anything we fully do is an alone journey." 

NG: That's right, and when you really listen to who you are and say what you need to say, it can be very scary. When I first started writing, I was sure they would all think I was an idiot because I was put down a lot in my childhood. Instead, they told me I was a genius. [laughs]

I promise you that if you speak from your true self, somebody will respond. If they put you down a lot, get out of that arena. Be with other writers and do writing practice where you write and read with no commentary. That way, you get to learn to voice your voice, and it's amazing how much you can hear if there's no interference. You can hear when you're on and when you're off, when you're bullshitting and when you've really hit home.

MM: How did you become so fascinated with haiku, and why is this form still so popular?

NG: I studied with Allen Ginsberg in 1976 at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He told us that the only real measure of a haiku is that, upon hearing one, your mind experiences a small sensation of space—a cessation of thought. Then he added that this space is "nothing less than God.” That blew me away. 

When you hear a haiku, it slows down your mind and brings you home. Try listening to this haiku by Yosa Buson and notice what happens to your mind:  

Ah, grief and sadness
the fishing line trembles
in the autumn breeze

Can you hear the space in that?

MM: Yes. So Ginsburg was saying that because haiku verses don't quite make rational sense, the mind is forced to pause, to go quiet? And that silence is nothing less than God? 

NG: Yes. That is what creates the little space. Another favorite poet of mine is Kobayashi Issa, whose mother died when he was 3. Issa wrote this first haiku when he was 6 years old:

Come play with me
you little sparrow
motherless sparrow

Haiku helps us to notice the small beautiful aspects of this world, especially when we are upset and things seem most out of control. After Issa's wife and three children died, he wrote this for his  daughter:

In a dream
my daughter lifts a melon
to her soft cheek

MM: So beautiful. How do you yourself stay hopeful, connected, and engaged in times like these, when the world seems so out of control, with so much sadness and difficulty? 

NG: To be honest, hopeful has never been something I believed in, either in the old life or this life. I prefer to accept things as they are. That has been hard during this time.

By last August, for example, I'd become like a 1950s housewife. I didn't know who I was. I couldn't write; I couldn't do anything. I was very messed up, and friends were scared for me. It was partially due to the fact I was home all the time when I used to travel a lot. I never realized how social I actually am, how much other breathing human beings juiced me. I live in this beautiful house alone. I have a partner, but she doesn't live with me.

So I had a residency in Port Townsend, Washington, that I was going to cancel because of COVID until my girlfriend said she’d drive me there. We stopped at Salt Lake, and I could see from the map that we were going through Southern Idaho. I’d wanted to go to Ketchum for 35 years, but it was out of the way. It wasn’t logical, but she said, “Let's just go. We have enough time. There's no limit anymore. There's no structure.” 

Hemingway is buried there, and I like to visit the graves of people I admire. So we got to the hotel about four o'clock, and it turned out the cemetery was two blocks away. I ran to it as the sun was setting.

It's a beautiful cemetery with lots of pine trees. I thought I'd know right away where Hemingway's grave was, but I didn’t. I called the man at the hotel desk, and he said, “Just look for two pine trees that are so close together that only one grave could fit between them.”

There were a lot of trees, but I found it. It was a flat rectangle, the size of a man laying out six feet, and all it said was, “Ernest Miller Hemingway: 1899 to 1961.” I sat down on a stump and poured my heart out.

Hemingway was one of my deepest and earliest influences. He wrote one of my favorite books, A Moveable Feast, in Ketchum. As I poured my heart out, I came back to myself. I realized, “Oh yes. This is my path for this lifetime.” What I learned is that you might have to go on a twisted path and zigzag around to find yourself. But if you stick with it, you will find your way. And that is what makes good literature.

MM: So no need to hope? Just keep living? 

NG: And writing.  Never forget that.