Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.
This week I have chosen a quote from the popular American writer and speaker, Natalie Goldberg.
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.
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 on Canyon Road 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: nataliegoldberg.com
Her 1986 book Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within has 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 tangledupinbob.com.
Goldberg has been a serious Zen practitioner since 1974 and studied with Katagiri Roshi from 1978 to 1984.
“You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them”
— Natalie Goldberg
I wrote a piece for Femsplain a while ago and now that it has finally gone live this week. When I wrote the piece, I was very unsure of it. It wasn’t supposed to turn out so emotional, so raw, so personal but I wrote a little differently than I normally do. I wrote and wrote of hours, not editing, not worrying, not thinking about grammar, spelling, or structure. I just wrote and so much came out of me that I hadn’t thought about in so long I ended up having to cut the piece nearly in half to meet the word count restriction.
I think I have a bit of talent, or at least a great passion that could lead to talent, but I am new to letting go so completely. I wouldn’t say this is my very best work, but it felt the best to write.
Typically when I write the free writer in me and the editor and critic in me fill the same space all at once. I am usually writing against the clock—I am a chronic procrastinator—and I try my best to kill two birds with one stone. I write the piece freely, without worrying about grammar or spelling, but I try to keep a final structure or goal in mind. I try to stay inside the lines, but I try to choose colors that are interesting but realistic.
I tried something new with this piece, and with a few more I hope to submit to Femsplain, to other publications, and for myself and my readers here. I am writing with only feeling. I am letting myself be wordy, chaotic, emotional, and without structure or an end game in mind. I write everything I feel on the subject, for days, and by the end, I have a pile of feeling and history that is all me.
Then, each sentence and paragraph become little puzzle pieces I move here and there where I think they fit best, then I trim the fat. I look for repetition that serves no purpose and work to curb my habit of over-explaining and meandering away from the topic.
I do everything I can to preserve some of those first feelings I faced when I began. I try to keep the force of the piece. I want to feel hurt or happy by the end. I want to feel what it is I am trying to get the reader to feel. I let myself feel afraid and a little embarrassed by my openness. I let myself cry a little, get angry a little, and I keep writing still. I do it by thinking of those feeling as a sign that I might be writing something worth reading.
When I first face those feelings, they are too big and scary to share with the world. Some of the things I think and feel are disturbing and very hard to describe. I think I might drive people away. People might laugh at me. I may hurt someone. I might, in fact, be insane. I write through all of that too.
Goldberg says that there is nothing wrong with at least putting it all down on paper quickly and passionately at first. At the start you are just you, later you can decide what parts to share or keep to yourself. Just get it all out and look at the whole before you do.
You can clean it up. You can find a way to say what you are trying to say in a better way.
But for now, fill the space you have with what is deep, and meaningful, and entirely you.
I started a weekly-ish newsletter on life, love, and suffering. You can sign up here: tinyletter.com/zenandpi (:
Featured image via Wikipedia
Biographical information via Goodreads