Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Profile Natalie Goldberg: Slow walking and writing down the bones

Photo by Noreen Perrin

I had the land of New Mexico, Taos Mountain, the Rio Grande to rely on....I had found a place that was mine. I realized no day went by there that I didn't stop, take a breath and look around. I'd never seen sky so big, so deeply blue. I'd watch the big white cumulus clouds sail over Taos Mountain and then wispy ones trail behind. I felt immense, limitless as the sky and in the same moment felt unimportant, little--and that smallness felt good, placed me properly in the dimension of life. -- Natalie Goldberg

Author, poet, painter and teacher Natalie Goldberg has taught numerous writing workshops at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House since about 1986. The quote (above) from her book Long Quiet Highway speaks to her abiding love for Taos and to how the area informed her life in her early years of writing. But how did she get here? What was her path to Taos and to writing? I hope the following pastiche will answer that.

Natalie lived in a tipi on the side of Lama Mountain when she first arrived in the early 1970s. An awakening experience she had while teaching in Albuquerque landed her at the Lama Foundation in San Cristobal, twenty miles north of Taos. The first person Natalie met was Barbara Durkee (now known as Asha von Brieson), one of the intentional commune’s founders. Her encounter with this remarkable woman and the Lama Foundation proved life-changing. First Asha encouraged her to find a practice. Natalie subsequently experienced the variety of spiritual traditions—ranging from Native American spiritualism to Judaism—offered at the Lama Foundation. Later Asha supported Natalie in another way. As head of the “hippie school” DaNahazli (Navajo for spring will come again), she hired her to teach there, giving Natalie free rein to develop classes. Through this venue Natalie began to develop the writing practice that culminated in the publication of Writing Down the Bones.

Whether you are just beginning to write or have been writing for a long time, Natalie Goldberg lets you know "there are many truths. To do writing practice means to deal ultimately with your whole life."  -- from review of Writing Down the Bones : Freeing the Writer Within (expanded version, 2005) by Mary Ann Moore*

In an interview with Jenny Attiyeh**, Natalie ascribes the success of Writing Down the Bones (since its first publication in 1986, sales have numbered over 1.5 million copies and the book has been translated into 14 languages) to breaking a paradigm about writing. Natalie likens writing as a practice to the discipline practiced by committed athletes, say a runner or a tennis player. Using the method she first developed at DaNahazli and first conducted with a writing group of eight Taos women in the mid-1970s, Natalie combined writing practice with Zen. After twelve years of study with Katagiri Roshi in Minneapolis, she saw correlations between writing and the 2000-year-old Zen practice of watching the mind. For Natalie writing practice is Zen practice: there is no separation. “It’s all interconnected and interpenetrated.”

As a writing teacher, Natalie sees her job as helping people to understand the process of writing and simultaneously to understand the movements of the mind. Throughout her books on writing, Natalie advocates certain basics for timed sessions meant to get to the heart (or the bones) of writing. Some of my favorites are:

Write! Don’t think.
Keep your hand moving.
Don’t cross out.
Don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.
Feel free to write the worst junk in America.

What does writing practice do? In Thunder and Lightning, Natalie addresses this with an example. She and a friend had the blues one Sunday. To ease this condition, they tried meditating, then hiking. When neither activity relieved the doldrums, the two alternated writing for half an hour with reading their a priori work aloud to each other. It worked, as Natalie wrote: “The effort of forming words, physically connecting hand with mind and heart, and then having the freedom to read aloud transformed us.”

I push people off a cliff, get their hands moving. -- Natalie Goldberg, October 12, 2010

Deep-delving explorations of life through writing are characteristic of Natalie’s workshops. I asked her to tell me about a typical one, about what to expect. “You do a lot of writing.” Natalie teaches "a priori" or first thought writing that gets down to the bones. She fosters “a trust in your own voice, a confidence in your own experience, and a way to approach writing.” As a teacher, she is a proponent of “Shut up and write.” That’s her method in a nutshell.

Natalie’s next workshop at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, “True Secret of Writing” (December 6-11, 2010), will be held in silence. She calls it a “Sit, Walk, Write Retreat” as it will alternate between timed writings and sitting and walking meditation. Maybe Natalie will lead a slow walk to the cemetery in Kit Carson Park to pay homage to fellow writer, Mabel Dodge Luhan.

A list of Natalie Goldberg’s books follows. I am particularly grateful to her for her interview with me this month and for Writing Down the Bones, which sustained me through my early years of writing when I most needed a teacher. I salute this remarkable woman.

Be well. Adios for now,

* Marianne Moore's review was posted on Story Circle Book Reviews on March 30, 2006. For the full review, see http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org/reviews/writingbones.shtml, accessed October 26, 2010
** Listen to Jenny Attiyeh's interview with Natalie at ThoughtCast http://www.thoughtcast.org/religion/natalie-goldberg/
For more information on Natalie Goldberg, please visit http://www.nataliegoldberg.com/

Books by Natalie Goldberg:

Chicken and In Love, 1980
Writing Down the Bones : Freeing the Writer Within, 1986
Wild Mind : Living the Writer's Life, 1990
Long Quiet Highway : Waking Up In America, 1993
Banana Rose, 1995
Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World, 1997
Thunder And Lightning : Cracking Open the Writer's Craft, 2000
Top of My Lungs: Paintings and Poems, 2003
The Great Failure : A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth, 2004
Old Friend From Far Away : The Practice of Writing Memoir, 2008


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Liz! Such a lovely post. Wanted to let you know that I linked to it on the Natalie Goldberg Facebook Fan page... any Natalie fan will enjoy reading your piece.

    Here's the link, FYI: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Natalie-Goldberg-Fan-Page/135196379861726?ref=ts

  2. And thank you, Annell and Laura! Delighted you liked the piece. It was fun to write.

    All best,

  3. I miss Natalie Goldberg. Sit Walk Write promotes calm as an evening lake. I have returned to the page. It is time for a return trip to Taos. Thank you for sharing brilliant words.

  4. Thank you, Linda! Natalie continues to inspire writing, fun, humor and, as you say so poetically, calm as an evening lake.

    All best,