The Spotlight Interview
Natalie Goldberg, Writer/Author/Poet
“It's the process of writing and life that matters... We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories.”—Natalie Goldberg
Natalie Goldberg, poet, teacher, writer, and painter, revolutionized the world of writing books with her very first book, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” originally published in 1986, then reissued last year for its 20th anniversary, and ultimately translated into nine languages.
In the years since, Goldberg has written nine more books, including “Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life,” the novel “Banana Rose,” “Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World,” and two memoirs, “Long Quiet Highway: Waking up in America” and her last, “The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth,” in which she courageously faces the twin demons—and idols—of her life, a deceased father, Ben, who owned a bar in Long Island, New York, and “had poor sexual boundaries,” and a deceased Japanese Zen teacher/mentor, Katagiri Roshi, whom she studied with for a dozen years and whom she claims had an inappropriate relationship with another student.
An inspiration to so many writers, Goldberg, 58, has always been a model of honest, intimate writing, stripped so thoroughly of any pretense or self-consciousness or fear. Her work, influenced heavily by Zen Buddhism, which she has studied for three decades, is full of soulful curiosity and wonder and exploration, exhibiting a great yearning to understand the world around her, as well as her place within it.
Oddly, however, Goldberg didn’t start writing until very late, at 24 years old, working instead as both a teacher in Detroit and co-founder of a natural foods restaurant in Ann Arbor called “Naked Lunch,” named after the William S. Burrough’s book.
Then, after finishing up cooking ratatouille at the restaurant one day,
Goldberg strolled off to the local bookstore and experienced an epiphany. “I saw a thin volume of poetry by Erica Jong called “Fruits and Vegetables,’” she says. “The first poem I read was about cooking an onion. I didn’t know you could write a poem about something that ordinary. It was what I’d been doing all day. And with that, I was ready.”
For more information on Goldberg and her books, please visit her Web site at:
Here is my exclusive newsletter interview with Ms. Goldberg:
Mike: Are you amazed that Writing Down the Bones has become such a phenomenon?
Goldberg: Well, to be honest, I’ve only caught on recently about that fact, and that it’s changed so many people’s lives. When I wrote that book, I was only trying to be true to myself. I just wrote it and kept on writing book after book without looking back.
Believe it or not, last year was the first year I took off since writing Bones. And so, I was finally able to really take it all in.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t have any sense of the reaction. Because I have gotten a lot of letters and everything else over the years, and people have told me how much they loved the book. But, you know, I was busy. I was always writing. So even though I took it in, I didn’t take it in deeply, like I recently had the space to do.
For me, that book was nothing more than what I developed in writing practice. So it’s very ordinary to me. Since I live in a very cultural kind of place that understands such things as “sitting” and “walking meditation,” I just thought everybody knew all about the things that I wrote about in Bones.
It’s just Zen really, because my whole life is grounded in Zen. It’s not Natalie being a genius. It’s just Natalie wanting to share with the world something she understood.
But now, I understand that I broke a paradigm, that I broke something wide open. And I so much appreciate that I’ve helped people.
In fact, just last October, at a conference in Pittsburgh, I met an old, bigtime book editor from New York City, who told me that Bones not only changed her life but the way she saw the world.
That really floored me.
I’m totally happy I could do that for people.
Mike: What was the original purpose of Bones?
Goldberg: I think I was writing the book to save my creative life. To learn to trust my own mind and have a confidence in my experience.
I felt I had something to say and wanted to say it. At first, though, I was afraid, like many people are, because I’ve been put down a lot in my life, grown up in a very critical environment. I was afraid people would think it was stupid or idealistic. But I decided I had to put it down and share with the world something that I saw.
I also had been a poet for 13 years by then, and it felt like the next natural step after poetry to write these chapters as if each were like a poem, standing on its own.
Mike: How are you different from that woman who wrote Bones?
Goldberg: I’m not as naïve as I was back then. In fact, several years ago, I taped an audio of me reading Bones and after each chapter I commented on it. It was so interesting, since it was the 50-year-old looking back at the 30 year-old. And what I saw was this: Everything in that book is still true for me. Except now I’m not as enthusiastic—about the business, about the craft. I know now that writing is hard work, and I don’t have as much energy as I used to. I was bursting when I wrote that book, and now I’m more sober.
Yet, when I pick up the pen and just start writing, it’s the same heaven it was all those many years ago.
Mike: It’s a spiritual practice for you, is it not?
Goldberg: Yes, from the writing of Bones on, writing practice has been meditation for me. The two are completely aligned now.
When I’m writing, I either take a long walk or just sit there—watching my breathing. And when my mind wanders, I come back to the breathing.
All my writing is about studying the mind. My writing is a practice, as is meditation. It’s a way to explore thoughts and how they move. The writer’s landscape is the mind. So it’s the same thing.
Mike: What did Bones do for your career and your life in general?
Goldberg: It opened up a lot of doors for me. But people are very idealistic about that. For me, I didn’t enjoy my success. I felt hounded, like I lost my privacy. People seemed like they wanted to eat me alive. Everybody wanted to tell me a story, wanted me to recognize him or her. They didn’t just say thank you for writing the book and move on.
I’m just one person. I couldn’t take it all. I wasn’t geared for that level of success. I was geared to be married and have children. I didn’t know what to do with it all.
Not to mention that after that book, everybody wrote books that were similar to mine.
The truth is, I didn’t know when I was writing Bones that it would take off like it did. You can’t control that. That’s what people don’t understand. It’s not about your own little will. It’s about when it’s your time, when the sky and the wind and the trees and the birds and everything else are behind you. And it might not ever be your time in this lifetime. And it’s none of your business. Your job is to shut up and write.
Mike: The thing I love about Bones is the raw honesty.
Goldberg: (She chuckles) Well, it’s just the bones. Nothing extra.
Mike: In Bones, you tell the story of your Zen master Katagiri Roshi encouraging you to make writing your spiritual practice. Could you elaborate?
Goldberg: When I was 26, I began trying to figure out how to write. I didn’t have any rules. I didn’t call it writing practice. I just wrote and wrote. Then in 1976, I went to study writing with the great poet Allen Ginsberg for six weeks at the Naropa Institute. He brought together a lot of stuff about writing and its relationship to the mind, and I continued to pursue it after the course ended.
And then I started to time myself while I kept my hand moving as I observed my mind. I went deeper and deeper into it and noticed things, but I didn’t give the experience a special name. In this way I learned which practices helped me write, and which didn’t.
I did it this way for years before I met Katagiri Roshi. When I met him and began sitting with him, he said one day, “Make writing your practice.” At the time I never listened to anything he said; I was so arrogant. I said, “Oh, that’s ridiculous, Roshi.”
Many years later, I finally began to understand what Roshi said. And it was actually in the writing of Bones that it all came together. There was a great “Ah.” About two years after the book was published I went to see him and I said to him, “Why did you tell me to make writing my practice?” And he looked at me very nonchalantly and said, “Well, you liked to write, that’s why I told you.” He understood where my passion was, where my energy was. So in other words, if you really want to be a runner but think you should meditate, make running your practice and then go deeply into it at all levels.
But Roshi also said, “Ah, but it’s pretty good to sit too.” So I also sat to keep myself honest, and to somehow develop my back. You know, my front was all energy. I explain it all in Bones – you have to have quiet peace at your back, otherwise you burn up.
Mike: What would you like people to know about Bones that they might not already know?
Goldberg: That a lot went into the writing of that book. It’s not like I just wrote something. It was completely ordered.
Mike: What’s been the secret of writing for you?
Goldberg: That you have to let go. Let go of all the trying and the wanting, letting go of success and failure. It’s very hard to do that, but the true letting go is huge.
I truly believe that great writing only comes when you let go and stop trying to be a success, or trying to run from failure.
But as much as you strive to let go, you still have to show up and pick up the pen and write.
Mike: So, what goes through your mind when you’re writing?
Goldberg: Nothing. I don’t think. I just sit down and go.
For instance, when I’m working on a book, I never ever think about that book. I just keep feeding my belly. I become pregnant. Like composting. But I don’t think because then monkey mind takes over.
You know, we all have tremendously strong monkey minds that are very creative, that can make endless excuses. “I really can’t write today because my daughter is having trouble in school. I really can’t write because I have a stomachache every time I write.” Monkey mind will always think of new reasons why we can’t write. What I teach is if you want to write, do it and do it now.
Mike: Could you give me your definition of “monkey mind”?
Goldberg: Monkey mind is actually a Buddhist term. It refers to that annoying inner voice that creates busyness. It keeps us away from our true hearts, from expressing our real thoughts. It tells us things such as “I can’t write today” and “I don’t want to write today.” You must try to ignore your monkey mind and live in that huge place called the “wild mind,” where everything is available to us, where all things—rocks, trees, animals—are interconnected and interpenetrated. This is what we have to connect with in order to write.
Mike: People are always pairing you with Julia Cameron and comparing Bones with The Artist’s Way. Are you okay with that?
Goldberg: Yes, I’m fine with that. I know Julia and we talk regularly on the phone and I’m very fond of her. She’s lived in Taos as well, and in fact we’ve joked that maybe something’s in the water here.
But Julia has helped thousands and thousands of people. So the pairing is wonderful.
Mike: When you read The Artist’s Way, what did you think of it?
Goldberg: I liked it. Some people say it’s like Bones. But I don’t see that. I think she took it a whole different way.
Mike: How do you differ from Julia’s approach?
Goldberg: I think she’s been hesitant to look at the dark side, although I’m not sure that’s true anymore.
Mike: You and your books have been described, in a somewhat dismissive way, as “cosmic” and “New Age-y” and “out there.” Does that bother you?
Goldberg: No, I can’t aggravate over that stuff. And I try not to read those reviews. Besides, I’m not New Age. My stuff is rooted in 2,000 years of watching the mind. So it’s not just “some creative thing that Natalie does.” What it is, is that you keep your hand going and whatever goes through, you put it down. Just like in meditation: Whatever comes up, you keep sitting with it and you don’t run from it... hopefully. Writing is a taskmaster because it’s on the page. You can’t fool yourself.
Mike: Tell me about your last book, The Great Failure. It has such a forbidding title.
Goldberg: The title came from Buddhism, which talks about The Great Spring, The Great This and The Great That. The thing is, we’re all frightened of failure. We’re all running from failure and toward success. For me, this book was a chance to step back into what I fear—into failure—look around, feel it, and stand my ground. And what happens when you stand your ground, when you’re not afraid of failure, when you’re not running from it, it becomes the Great Failure. In other words, it’s really an embrace of both failure and success. It’s an embrace of everything. So it’s actually a magnificent thing, to have a Great Failure.
I was trained to fail. And in Zen, that’s a great thing, because finally, in the end, nobody succeeds. We all face old age, sickness, and death. So, in a way, it’s a very grounding thing. In the book I look at betrayal, disappointment and failure—the things we’re all afraid of. In looking at them, they become The Great Success, because we’re no longer running from them.
I stepped right into what I was afraid of, and so it no longer hounded me. The world opened for me and suddenly became big and magnificent.
Mike: How long did it take you to write The Great Failure?
Goldberg: Two years. Which is average for me.
Mike: The book is about your dad (the Bartender) and your Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi (the Monk), both of who betrayed, disappointed, and failed you. Tell me about them.
Goldberg: My dad died in 1999. He was fabulous, funny, alive, and very frightening. He was a bully who had really poor sexual boundaries. And though I adored him, I was always scared and uncomfortable around him. I had to finally stand up to him. And in standing up to him, I think I grew up. And part of my growing up was learning to take on the part of myself that wanted to write.
My father was a bartender and didn’t read books. I actually thought I could win over my father’s love with my success with books. But he didn’t love books, so my writing books didn’t make much sense to him.
We have this idea that when we publish a book all these great things will happen. That we’ll get all this love and everything else that we want, and it’s really not true.
And from my Zen teacher, I learned about the ground of being. We all want well being. I learned the dharma from him.
Mike: Was The Great Failure a difficult book to write?
Goldberg: Yes, very. Not the actual physical writing. But I couldn’t believe I was writing what I was writing, the stuff I was saying. So I was scared. So I wrote some of it in airports, when I didn’t notice I was writing.
Mike: To fool your mind, I guess.
Goldberg: Yes, exactly, that’s a good way of putting it.
Mike: Having written this memoir, what’s your take on the whole memoir controversy involving James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces?
Goldberg: Listen, in a memoir, you can’t lie about being in jail if you didn’t go to jail. But I don’t think he should’ve been ostracized the way he was. I feel terrible that he’s been made such a scapegoat. I mean, have some compassion. He’s a human being. Don’t turn on him all at once.
But they have, and made such a big deal of it—from Oprah to the publishers.
It’s shameful, just shameful.
The thing is, the readers aren’t taking any responsibility. They’re so naïve. The man is an addict, and addicts are liars and exaggerators.
I feel really sad about the whole thing, especially since the book has influenced and helped people anyway.
That’s what happens when you’re a success. If he and the book weren’t so successful, he would’ve never been ripped apart the way they have.
This is why I warn people about success. People don’t know what they’re getting into before it happens to them. He was probably so blown away that the book took off like it did
Success isn’t what you think it is.
Mike: Talking about success, you’ve become such an inspiration to entire generation of writers. Are you coming to grips with that fact?
Are you enjoying your success now?
Goldberg: I’m trying to. I enjoy teaching, and my success gives me the opportunity to teach a lot. And I enjoy writing, and my success helps get me published.
Mike: Do you write every day?
Goldberg: No, but when I say to myself that I will, I do. I show up. That’s the difference. When you say you’re going to write every day, it’s like going on a diet. And when you don’t write one day, you feel guilty.
But in my early days, when I was building my muscle, I did write every day.
I’ve been writing for 30 years now. Things change.
Mike: Is writing harder, easier, or the same after all these years?
Goldberg: It feels like it gets harder and harder. Because I’ve said everything I know, and now I have to go beyond what I know to write more.
When I was young, I felt as if there was this mountain far away and I had a lot of energy to run toward it. Now, I feel like I’m up against the mountain and have to move it a centimeter to say a word.
Mike: You once said that you could never write on a computer because you couldn’t “go that fast.” Has your view changed or do you still write in longhand?
Goldberg: I do all my creative writing in longhand in a notebook. I know very little about computers, I tell my students it’s okay if they use computers, but to know that it’s just a different physical activity, so a slightly different part of the mind comes out—not better or worse, just different. And also, I think it’s important to always be able to write by hand, because it’s an essential thing that we learned when we were very young.
Mike: Everybody seems to have a blog these days. Do you blog?
Goldberg: No. What’s a blog? (She chuckle) No, no, I’ve heard of them. I just don’t do it and can’t see myself starting.
Mike: Were there any writing books that inspired you?
Goldberg: I like Peter Elbow a lot. And Dorothy Brande’s Becoming a Writer is a wonderful book.
Mike: What book of yours is your favorite?
Goldberg: Well, they’re all my darlings. But I love Living Color. Which is all about my painting. I’ve been painting as long as I’ve been writing.
I also very much love Wild Mind. I feel like it says a lot in there. I get in the practice of writing, a lot of memoir stuff, and I think it’s funny. I still remember well the process of writing it, and it was very alive and actually easy.
Mike: In the workshops that you conduct, what problems do you encounter most?
Goldberg: That they don’t read books. Around 40 percent of writing should be reading books, but people just don’t read anymore. They don’t understand that in order to write you must join the lineage of writers and care about authors. And not be so opinionated. I like. I don’t like. Just shut up and read, and see what you can learn from these writers.
You have to care in a big way about all writing, not just about your own book.
Mike: From what I understand of your workshops, you emphasize mostly commitment and perseverance and determination. What about the concept of natural talent?
Goldberg: I guess I don’t believe in talent. I know talent exists. It’s kind of free-floating. Like maybe you’re born pretty—but so what? What does that get you?
I never thought of myself as talented—mostly because no one ever told me I had any, and any time I went to a palm reader I was told I should be an accountant. It was my own effort, really, that made new lines in my palm.
I’ve always believed in human effort. Not just hard work, like “put your shoulder to the grindstone.”
Talent has nothing to do with waking up. I’m talking about being aware and mindful as a writer, knowing the names of trees and plants. Noticing the light and how it’s hitting a tree or hitting the chrome on a car. That comes with practice. It’s pretty nice if you’re talented, but it will only take you so far. Work takes you a lot further.
Mike: You don’t talk about writer’s block. I guess you don’t have such blocks, do you?
Goldberg: No, not really. At least not the kind of blocks people usually talk about.
Mike: What do you think of writer’s block?
Goldberg: Oh, it’s just monkey mind. Shut up, pick up your pen, and write.
Mike: And how about when people say they don’t have the time to write sometimes, or who procrastinate to no end?
Goldberg: I think it’s just people saying to themselves: “I’m afraid to let myself out. I’m afraid to follow what I really want. I can’t do it right now, but it’s my deepest dream. I can’t do it because I have a family and I have to make a living. I am scared that I’m not good enough.”
I don’t pay much attention at that level. All I hear is an excuse. In other words, these people want something but they’re not willing to step forward and grab it. Over the years that I’ve been teaching writers, what I’ve watched is that people don’t let themselves burn. They don’t let their passion come alive. They don’t feed it. To me it doesn’t really matter what the excuse is.
Now I can hear you saying, “Well, but what if the excuse is true? What if the person does have six children and they work two jobs in order to feed them?” What I say is that if the person burns to write, then they will have to find time to do it, even if it’s one half-hour a week. You have to somehow address your whole life. You can’t put it off until you’re 60, because you might die at 59.
Don’t make any excuses. Simply take out your notebook, pick up a pen, and just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write. Say yes, stay alive, be awake. Just write, write, write.