Natalie Goldberg Puts It All Into Words

Writing is where I give everything. I know that when I’m doing sitting meditation, I hold back. Writing is where I put my ass on the line.

Stephen Foehr
1 May 1998

Natalie Goldberg writes, as she puts it, from the bottom of her mind and from her pelvis. Don’t let your imagination turn the image into a lurid metaphor. She doesn’t perform a bump-and-grind for the literati. Curb the verbs. Writing is Goldberg’s spiritual practice.

“Writing is where I give everything. I know that when I’m doing sitting meditation, I hold back. Writing is where I put my ass on the line.” Goldberg talks like a native New Yorker, which she is. I hear it in the self-assurance, the broad vowel sounds still distinct, despite her living in Taos, New Mexico, for 15 years.

“Writing practice is my fundamental practice,” she says. “I sit. I love to sit. I hate to sit. I sit quite well. I can sit still. I’ve been sitting for twenty-five years. But, I’ve given everything to writing, so I know what it means to give everything to something. I don’t do that with the sitting practice. I know the difference.”

Goldberg’s adobe-solar house is not in Taos. It’s eight miles west of town on the treeless plateau between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Grande Gorge, a deep gash in the semi-desert that appears suddenly, without warning. The vertiginous crack can be mistaken for a purple shadow until you’re right on top of the slash, staring down at the muddy Rio Grande roiling toward Texas.

Goldberg works in her studio, a solitary building about 200 yards from her house. When she looks out of the studio’s front wall of windows, she can’t see the gorge. It is several miles to her right. All she sees is the enormous high-desert sky as it bends over the horizon, a cloak on the shoulder of the earth.

As we talk, Goldberg stands hip deep in the earth, listening to the blueness of the sky. Her studio, partly buried, is made of tin cans, old tires and packed earth. It’s one of Mike Reynolds’ earthships – the low-cost, energy-efficient houses he started designing thirty years ago for people of Third World countries and for the poor, back-to-the-earth hippies who flocked to Taos in the sixties.

Watching billowy white clouds balancing on nothing, Goldberg says, “Writing practice lets out all my wild horses, all the stuff I’ve held in. Writing lets it all out. In Thunder and Lightning, (her new book she is rushing to finish before her upcoming trip to Japan in March), I’m talking about once you’ve let that energy out, how do you take control of it? How do you take up the reins of the wild horses and direct them someplace?”

Think of it this way, she tells me: in writing practice, you flood the whole state of Mississippi.That’s a lot of energy. The next step is to learn to dig gullies and direct the water, the energy.

“I’ve got that energy I can direct. Let’s say I’m really writing about my father and the writing is hot. And something keeps pulling me to a bologna sandwich. I go to the bologna sandwich. Not to follow that flow is to discriminate. Maybe the bologna sandwich will bring me deeper understanding of my father in some way I don’t know.”

Goldberg sits on the stillpoint of the present while doing her practice. The energy of the present can send her bounding from writing table to bookshelf and back, from the past to the now, faster than a fly on a sugar buzz. She lives the energy, allows it to come through her, and writes it all down with the speed of a kid stuffing her mouth with jelly beans.

“I’m in my pelvis and I’m alive when in the present,” she says. “I’m grabbing thoughts as fast as they come with no attempt to sort them out. I’m grabbing them so fast that I learn nondiscrimination, non-judgment, acceptance of what comes through me, not to hold on.”

Her writing practice is her spiritual practice.

“The deepest truth for me is that nothing does it like the writing practice,” Goldberg says. “It kicks ass. It uses everything in me. I feel very tired after a good writing session, but also very relaxed and on the earth. Very grounded.”

Sometimes, after a hot writing session, Goldberg relaxes in the big bathtub in the studio’s bathroom. The studio is one room, perhaps 600 square feet, with a kitchen. There is a Zen saying: “Our room is an indication of our state of mind.” The Zen state of mind is empty, clean, not cluttered. On this day, Goldberg’s studio is messy.

“When my room is very neat, it usually means that I’m uptight and in a controlling mood,” she admits, glancing around. “When I’m really creating, really honking, things are all over the place. I’m in a very fertile mind right now, and the studio reflects that.”

The wastepaper baskets overflow with discarded sheets of paper on which her handwritten words are bent and folded into the creases. Music tapes lie scattered across the floor. The only bright spots of color are the pink blooming azalea and the huge rubber plant that threatens to engulf the couch against the wall. The walls are unpainted adobe, beige, which complements the light-brown ceiling of fitted planks. Three framed newspaper pictures of her Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, are on the wall behind her. In the middle of the room is her L-shaped desk. One section of the L is covered by three of her latest paintings, in ink wash, of tables and chairs in a Parisian cafe. On the other section of the L is a framed photo of Katagiri Roshi and a blue notebook. The notebook is filled with her words, except for three blank pages. When those pages are completed, her new book Thunder and Lightning, Flash and Form in Writing, to be published by Bantam, will be finished. “Hopefully,” she says. “I want it done before I go to Japan, so I can leave it for a while, then read it over and see what I have. I don’t even know what I have right now. I’ve just kind of gone out there.She doesn’t use a computer or a typewriter to write. Writing by hand is an important part of Goldberg’s writing/spiritual practice.

“A writer must be awake, present and alive,” Goldberg says. “The job of a writer, and the job in the writing practice, is to connect with that awake part. I become awake, alert, through the writing practice by moving the pen across the page. This physically connects my mind, thoughts, whole body, whole world. As a writer, I have to be in touch with the present, alert to that part of myself, that animal-sense part that looks, sees, and notices.”

The animal sense, for Goldberg, is feline: a sensuous unfolding, like a cat stretching in a sunbeam, an alertness even in languid repose. A cat, when looking at a mouse, doesn’t sit back and assess whether that mouse has a prettier color, or is plumper, than another mouse. A cat stays right on the moment, right on that mouse, then pounces.

“I move like an animal when I’m really present. I feel her, this animal, in my body,” Goldberg tells me. “I’m writing in the place where I can come wild and unbridled. I’m incredibly loose in my body. Dynamic. Then I can make some really good leaps, say things I never thought I knew, and make connections that I never realized before. I remember things that I had forgotten a long time ago.”

Recently, while writing, she remembered the goldfish she kept as a little girl. She would go with her mom or dad to the local Woolworth’s and carry the goldfish home in a clear plastic bag half-filled with water.

“I’d be so excited that I’d overfeed them,” she recalls. “I wanted them to eat well, but by the next day they were always dead. We’d have to throw them out and get more. This would go on for quite a while. Then, when I was writing the other day, it suddenly hit me. Those fish were dying while I was in bed as a little, innocent sleeping girl. It never hit me before, that those fish, living beings, were dying. And my heart broke.”

As a kid, Goldberg admits, she was a “deeply lazy person. I ate Oreo cookies and watched TV all day. I didn’t have any aspirations. I never thought about writing.”

She didn’t start writing until she was 24 and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She had quit George Washington University after her junior year to live in Ann Arbor with a boyfriend, whom she had met in Mexico. The relationship fizzled but she stayed on, eventually opening a restaurant, Naked Lunch. She did everything – the cooking, buying, you name it.

“I wrote some poems lying on my bed in Ann Arbor,” Goldberg says while making room on her desk for her lunch. “I never felt so whole and complete as when I wrote those poems. I never felt like that before, so I just kept following the feeling. I didn’t have any big thing, that this was my destiny or anything. I followed what I loved and it kept coming. It didn’t come all at once. I didn’t know that I was going to end up making a living as a writer. Now I’m working on my sixth book.”

In 1976, she studied for six weeks with Allen Ginsberg at The Naropa Institute in Boulder.

“I first connected mind and writing through Allen,” Goldberg says. “I took what Allen told me and decided that I would create and document writing as a legitimate spiritual path. Allen had a vision and I laid the bricks.”

She pauses to peel the big, thick-skinned orange her mother had sent from Florida. It’s a Honey Bell orange, she explains, that you can only get in Florida in January. Goldberg unwraps a slice of walnut bread and a bowl of ricotta cheese.

“I trusted in what I loved,” she says around a bite. “This is really good bread. Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.”

“What do you trust within yourself now?” I ask.

“I trust passion,” she replies. “I trust when I really want to do something. I just go for it. I don’t even question it. Sometimes maybe that’s stupid. But it’s not stupid if you stay with it after the initial wildness. I think Zen practice, and also writing practice, have taught me to trust my mind with what comes up and go with it.

“When you trust, it doesn’t mean blind trust. You deal with whatever comes up moment by moment, but you’ve made a decision to walk a certain path. You continue under all circumstances, even if it is fearful. The fear rises out of the unknown, and the known. Often we’re afraid of our path.”

“And how do you come to that trust?”

“With writing practice.” She takes a bite out of the juicy orange to wash down the walnut bread. “I just learned to have a relationship with my mind. With my whole mind. I trust when thoughts are coming from a deep place, from the bottom of my mind. Like for instance, three years ago I suddenly flashed really strongly that I wanted to build a zendo. I had no logic for it. It came from such a strong, deep place that I went with it. That was a big project. I had to raise money. It took a year to build. A few times I thought, “Nat, you’re an idiot. What did you build a zendo for?’ But basically I did it and I’m happy.”

The zendo is adjacent to her studio. Every Wednesday evening she and a group of friends gather there for a “Thich Nhat Hanh-style practice. I don’t have a Zen teacher currently. I study with different teachers, like George Bowmen. Mike Port and I work together. One reason I want to go to Japan is to visit some monasteries and to feel the place. My teacher was a Japanese Zen master. I’ve practiced Zen for twenty-five years but I’ve never seen the country from which it sprang.”

“And what do you distrust?” I ask.

“I distrust being nice – as in social chit-chat – rather than coming to the heart of the matter, of being spontaneous with your feelings. I distrust trying to behave. I distrust people who haven’t been angry. I distrust the word ‘compassion’ as the New Age sometimes uses it. Like ‘compassion’ meaning not to look at things directly and clearly, like glazing over your eyes and getting lovey-dovey. Being nice.”

A writer has the responsibility to be alert to such things as sugar-coated niceness. Goldberg stays alert by listening to the sound of color; to the past, the present and the future. She also listens by being dumb, as in not making assumptions, not being manipulative or judgmental, not being so sophisticated as to miss simple details.

“Be submissive to everything. Open. Listening,” Jack Kerouac wrote. Goldberg listens with her whole body. “Sometimes I feel that I’m a walking ear,” she says with a laugh. “I become really receptive to everything around me, not only sounds. Being receptive melts my edges. Leonard Cohen has some lines, “There is a crack/a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.’ For me, listening is how the light gets in.”

Goldberg listens with her belly, her nose, her eyes. “There is always a part of us that is awake, listening, even though we seem to be asleep, stumbling through things,” she says. “I listen to details.”

“Power is in the details. Details are reflections of everything,” Goldberg has written. She quotes Nabokov: “Caress the divine details.’ Sometimes I slow down enough to be really aware. Then my heart is open and I caress the details. The details are my darlings.”

She also listens to her inertia, insecurities, self-hate, fears, and obsessions. That is part of her creative process.

“When I listen like that, I go to where I feel nervous. That’s usually where the energy is, and I use it as my edge. Then I’m not avoiding anything. If I’m not willing to look at that stuff, then I’m averting something. The writing will always be a little off, a little smelly, because I’m not standing up in all of who I am. It gives me power to look at those things because I’m not twisting around. I’m standing up.”

And her obsessions? For years her obsessions were about her Jewish family. Now painting has moved to the fore.

“Painting is fun for me,” she says, looking at the three table-and-chair paintings spread on her desk. “It’s my second art form. It feeds writing. Writing is where I put my ass on the line. Whatever comes up, I’ll continue to write. Painting is more like a salami sandwich. I enjoy eating a salami sandwich, but I don’t need to eat one every day.”

She pauses, as if listening to the details in her words. “I don’t know if it’s an obsession, but I keep asking myself this question: “What have I learned from all those years of sitting zazen?’ I’ve done 100-day trainings. I’ve sat a lot and still do. So what is it? I’ve taken everything I’ve learned and given it to writing. If I let go of writing, what is it that I know, just there, bald-face, in front of me?”

I read a passage from her book, Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, (Shambhala Publications, 1986): “Writing can teach us the dignity of speaking the truth, and it spreads out from the page into all our life. Otherwise, there is too much of a schism between who we are as writers and how we live our daily lives. That is the challenge: to let writing teach us about life and life teach us about writing. Let it flow back and forth.”

Goldberg listens thoughtfully. “How are you doing with the challenge?” I ask.

She gathers up the orange peels and sweeps bread crumbs off her desk with the edge of her hand.

“What can I say?” she replies, dumping the orange peels into the overflowing wastepaper basket under the desk. “Everything I write about, I try to live all the way. What I learn in writing, I’m responsible to live. I can’t write something and ignore it.”