Natalie Goldberg on Writing What Disturbs You

Writing is and always has been my passion, in all forms, whether blogging, poetry, or, my newest endeavor, novel-writing. Like any art, it takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you.

Each week I like to take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work. In learning, I like to teach, and in writing, I like to share with you all everything I learn as well as everything I do.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American New Age author and speaker Natalie Goldberg, best known for a series of books which explore writing as Zen practice. A series I am very anxious to read.

natalie-goldberg-403-pxls-largeFrom Goodreads: “Natalie Goldberg lived in Brooklyn until she was six when her family moved out to Farmingdale, Long Island, where her father owned the bar the Aero Tavern.

From a young age, Goldberg was mad for books and reading, and especially loved Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, which she read in ninth grade. She thinks that single book led her eventually to put pen to paper when she was twenty-four years old.

She received a BA in English literature from George Washington University and an MA in humanities from St. John’s University.

Goldberg has painted for as long as she has written, and her paintings can be seen in Living Color: A Writer Paints Her World and Top of My Lungs: Poems and Paintings. They can also be viewed at the Ernesto Mayans Gallery in Sante Fe.

A dedicated teacher, Goldberg has taught writing and literature for the last thirty-five years. She also leads national workshops and retreats, and her schedule can be accessed via her website: Her 1986 book Writing Down the Bones sold over a million copies and is considered an influential work on the craft of writing. Her 2013 book, The True Secret of Writing, is a follow-up to that work.

In 2006, she completed with the filmmaker Mary Feidt a one-hour documentary, Tangled Up in Bob, about Bob Dylan’s childhood on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota. The film can be obtained on Amazon or the website

Goldberg has been a serious Zen practitioner since 1974 and studied with Katagiri Roshi from 1978 to 1984.”

“Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.”

— Natalie Goldberg

It’s been over two years since I started blogging here, and a few months since I started sending out deeply personal newsletters. In that time I have asked either, “What am I feeling right now?” or “How can I help people?” but lately, I have noticed a tendency to only look to the lighter, more positive aspects of life and not enough at the dirty and unpleasant parts.

I’ve started to—in the newsletter I mentioned earlier, hint, hint—but I struggle with it. I try to here, but it doesn’t feel right. Poetry helps, but in fiction, I find it near impossible.

When I think about writing mean or disturbing things, my mind just stops. I feel blocked. I don’t think it’s that I am incapable of feeling hateful and mean, or that I am incapable of imagining doing mean or cruel things, I think I don’t like for others to see that side of me.

Ever since I was a child, I have been “the nice one.” I have been the one to quell conflict not cause them. I have been the one to point others toward a kinder and more empathetic way. I have been this way in all I have ever done, and I never noticed I had been that way in all that I have written too.

But I am trying to write a book, dammit, and at some point, I need to get to the villains! I am trying, but I just can’t see them the way I do all the good guys. I can’t imagine their motives; I can’t follow the ways they might use people up for their own ends. I can’t imagine all the cruel and disturbing things they might do for power, or money, or self-satisfaction.

I am not a perfect person. I have done bad things, and I have hurt people, but I have always felt a nearly crippling guilt afterward. Being cruel has rarely made me feel better. I have a hard time imagining how people can be “evil” and not want to not be evil. Except, I suppose they don’t realize they are evil. They may think they are good, or they are just crazy, and it makes no difference.

So how I am working through this? The way I always do, with practice and a bit of creativity. I am going to try to write about real events and people who disturb me. I am going to spend time examining their motives, the why, and the methods, the how. I’m going to do a very dangerous thing and try to empathize with people who have done horrible things.

While reading through different sites and blogs filled with writing advice, I keep coming across the same suggestion to treat each character as if they think this story is about them. They each have their own motivations and goals. Something is at stake for them all, and throughout the story, many of them will be forced to make choices as their wants and needs are put at risk.

Just like real people, no one is evil for no reason. There is a reason and if I can learn to understand that I might just learn how to tell a real story, yeah?


So yeah, I have a newsletter :)

Featured image via Pexels

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads


5 Replies to “Natalie Goldberg on Writing What Disturbs You”

  1. You have the right idea here. Villains are interesting because there is a reason they are why they are. Some don’t see themselves as the bad guys. Some have been brought to where they are by outside forces and they just embrace their situation. Some have gone through loss and they have nothing left to lose so they embark on vengeance or revenge no matter the cost. Any of these can bring about scary villains. Some we may want to sympathize with, but we at least need to empathize. Think on your favorite bad guys and why you like them. Also remember, that they have their own minds that take them to dark places most people don’t go. Villains are only as dark as you make them. Their thoughts and actions aren’t necessarily yours, so there is a freedom to think about what THEY may do and not you. It is something that will come with practice. Some practiced novel writers speak like they don’t so much write the action but they just know the characters well enough to just let the story unfold on its own.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reblogged this on mira prabhu and commented:
    Writing for me is the most enjoyable therapy…it works well with a mix of other therapies, of course, and in my case, the mix would be hatha yoga, meditation, and much much else. If you want to hook your reader, the best way is to be authentic – and in order to be authentic, one must speak from the heart, confronting all that we find disturbing and even shameful. Read zenandpi’s great post here on Natalie Goldberg’s advice to bravely plunge into writing about all that is dark…i wrote a post on my own early process which you can check out too if you like:


  3. Natalie Goldberg is one of my favorite authors. I would do anything to attend a writing session with her. Her advice is so on point. “Writing what disturbs you” speaks to me because, like you, there are some things I rather not let people know about. Unfortunately, people have seen a side of me that is anything but good. Which is probably why this phrase has so much meaning for me.


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