Before her book Writing Down the Bones was published in 1986, Natalie Goldberg was an unknown student of Buddhism with a passion for writing. Today, with nearly one million copies of Writing Down the Bones in print, Natalie Goldberg has helped change the way writing is practiced in homes, schools, and workshops across America. Here she talks about what it means to “write down the bones,” and her new full-length audio version of this classic work on writing and the spiritual life.
Sounds True: Natalie, you teach that no special tools are needed to be a writer. In other words you can write wherever you are now, as long as you have a pencil and a piece of paper. But people still make excuses for why they can't write. I'm curious to know what the most common excuses you hear from students in your workshops are about why they can't write.
Natalie Goldberg: It goes something like: “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 last 17 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, 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 till you're 60. You might die at 59.
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. Now.
Sounds True: Please talk a little about what you mean by monkey mind.
Natalie Goldberg: Monkey mind is actually a Buddhist term. It refers to mental activity that creates busyness which keeps us away from our true hearts. And it's an extraordinary truth. Look at our whole culture; it's built on busyness, and that's why we're so unhappy. But part of us loves busyness, including Natalie Goldberg. You have to pay attention and learn to understand how monkey mind works.
What does your true heart want? You have to give it at least half your energy. Otherwise monkey mind fills your whole life with busyness.
Sounds True: In your workshops you put an incredible emphasis on perseverance and determination. What about talent?
Natalie Goldberg: Well, 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?
Sounds True: A girlfriend, a boyfriend.
Natalie Goldberg: Right, a girlfriend, a boyfriend. But no one stays pretty. You know, on your deathbed, does it really matter?
I think talent is something like a water table under the earth. You tap into it with your effort and it flows through you. It's energy. I see many, many students who can naturally write. You can't believe it”the first time they pick up a pen, people's mouths are hanging open. But they don't stick with it. Maybe it's too easy so they don't believe it was really good, sometimes it just isn't that important. But if someone sits in the corner of the room struggling with the work, and keeps showing up for years, after a while their little coal begins to glow.
I never thought of myself as talented—no one ever told me I had any talent, 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.” What I'm talking about is waking up.
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.
Sounds True: In Writing Down the Bones you tell the story of your Zen master Katagiri Roshi, and how he encouraged you to make writing your spiritual practice. This story has become a kind of legend, Natalie. Please unravel how it happened, and explain how you really developed your approach to writing practice.
Natalie Goldberg: When I was 26, I was sitting a lot of zazen, and I began trying to figure out how to write. I didn't have any rules. I didn't call it writing practice, but I just wrote and wrote. Then in 1976, I went to study writing with 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. I'm going to keep sitting.” I thought he was trying to get rid of me; you know, like “Get out of here Natalie, we don't want you in the zendo.”
So many years later, I finally began to understand what Roshi said. And it was actually in the writing of Writing Down the 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 you 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 Writing Down the Bones—you have to have quiet peace at your back, otherwise you burn up.
Sounds True: What are the parallels between writing practice and meditation practice?
Natalie Goldberg: Writing practice is a technique that allows you to contact the vastness of being without going crazy. It gives you a structure. Whatever comes up, you keep your hand moving and you sit there until the time is up. Just like in meditation; whatever comes up while you're meditating, you keep the structure of the posture until the bell rings. You put down your pen for a while and go take a walk, and then you dip yourself in again.
Sounds True: During the Writing Down the Bones program, you talk about a key teaching you received from Katagiri Roshi“not to be tossed away.” What does this mean?
Natalie Goldberg: Don't be tossed away by your monkey mind. You say you want to do something“I really want to be a writer. But I might not make enough money as a writer.” That little voice comes along. “Oh, okay, then I won't write.” That's being tossed away. Those little voices are constantly going to be feeding us. You make a decision to do something. You do it. Don't be tossed away. And part of not being tossed away is understanding your mind and not believing it so much when it comes up with all these objections, when it comes up with all these insecurities and reasons not to do something. Don't be tossed away.