Wild Mind: Living the Writer's Lifeby Natalie Goldberg
An inspirational, practical, and often lighthearted guide on how to find time to write, how to discover your personal style, and how to make sentences come alive
Natalie Goldberg, author of the bestselling Writing Down the Bones, shares her invaluable insight into writing as a source of creative power, and the daily ins and outs of the writer/i>/b>… See more details below
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An inspirational, practical, and often lighthearted guide on how to find time to write, how to discover your personal style, and how to make sentences come alive
Natalie Goldberg, author of the bestselling Writing Down the Bones, shares her invaluable insight into writing as a source of creative power, and the daily ins and outs of the writer’s task. Topics include balancing mundane responsibilities with a commitment to writing; knowing when to take risks as a writer and a human being; coming to terms with success, failure, and loss; and learning self-acceptance—both in life and art. Thought-provoking and practical, Wild Mind provides an abundance of suggestions for keeping the writing life vital and active, and includes more than thirty provocative “try this” exercises as jump-starters to get your pen moving. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Natalie Goldberg, including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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Living the Writer's Life
By Natalie Goldberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Natalie Goldberg
All rights reserved.
The Rules of Writing Practice
For fifteen years now, at the beginning of every writing workshop, I have repeated the rules for writing practice. So, I will repeat them again here. And I want to say why I repeat them: Because they are the bottom line, the beginning of all writing, the foundation of learning to trust your own mind. Trusting your own mind is essential for writing. Words come out of the mind.
And I believe in these rules. Perhaps I'm a little fanatical about them.
A friend, teasing me, said, "You act as if they are the rules to live by, as though they apply to everything."
I smiled. "Okay, let's try it. Do they apply to sex?"
I stuck up my thumb for rule number one. "Keep your hand moving." I nodded yes.
Index finger, rule number two. "Be specific." I let out a yelp of glee. It was working.
Finger number three. "Lose control." It was clear that sex and writing were the same thing.
Then, number four. "Don't think," I said. Yes, for sex, too, I nodded.
I proved my point. My friend and I laughed.
Go ahead, try these rules for tennis, hang gliding, driving a car, making a grilled cheese sandwich, disciplining a dog or a snake. Okay. They might not always work. They work for writing. Try them.
1. Keep your hand moving. When you sit down to write, whether it's for ten minutes or an hour, once you begin, don't stop. If an atom bomb drops at your feet eight minutes after you have begun and you were going to write for ten minutes, don't budge. You'll go out writing.
What is the purpose of this? Most of the time when we write, we mix up the editor and creator. Imagine your writing hand as the creator and the other hand as the editor. Now bring your two hands together and lock your fingers. This is what happens when we write. The writing hand wants to write about what she did Saturday night: "I drank whiskey straight all night and stared at a man's back across the bar. He was wearing a red T-shirt. I imagined him to have the face of Harry Belafonte. At three A.M., he finally turned my way and I spit into the ashtray when I saw him. He had the face of a wet mongrel who had lost his teeth." The writing hand is three words into writing this first sentence—"I drank whiskey ..."—when the other hand clenches her fingers tighter and the writing hand can't budge. The editor says to the creator, "Now, that's not nice, the whiskey and stuff. Don't let people know that. I have a better idea: 'Last night, I had a nice cup of warmed milk and then went to bed at nine o'clock.' Write that. Go ahead. I'll loosen my grip so you can." If you keep your creator hand moving, the editor can't catch up with it and lock it. It gets to write out what it wants. "Keep your hand moving" strengthens the creator and gives little space for the editor to jump in.
Keeping your hand moving is the main structure for writing practice.
2. Lose control. Say what you want to say. Don't worry if it's correct, polite, appropriate. Just let it rip. Allen Ginsberg was getting a master's degree from Columbia University. Back then, they were doing rhymed verse. He had a lot of practice in formal meter, and so forth. One night, he went home and said to himself that he was going to write whatever he wanted and forget about formalities. The result was "Howl." We shouldn't forget how much practice in writing he had prior to this, but it is remarkable how I can tell students, "Okay, say what you want, go for it," and their writing takes a substantial turn toward authenticity.
3. Be specific. Not car, but Cadillac. Not fruit, but apple. Not bird, but wren. Not a codependent, neurotic man, but Harry, who runs to open the refrigerator for his wife, thinking she wants an apple, when she is headed for the gas stove to light her cigarette. Be careful of those pop-psychology labels. Get below the label and be specific to the person.
But don't chastise yourself as you are writing, "I'm an idiot; Natalie said to be specific and like a fool I wrote 'tree.'" Just gently note that you wrote "tree," drop to a deeper level, and next to "tree" write "sycamore." Be gentle with yourself. Don't give room for the hard grip of the editor.
4. Don't think. We usually live in the realm of second or third thoughts, thoughts on thoughts, rather than in the realm of first thoughts, the real way we flash on something. Stay with the first flash. Writing practice will help you contact first thoughts. Just practice and forget everything else.
Now here are some rules that don't necessarily apply to sex, though you can try to apply them to sex if you like.
5. Don't worry about punctuation, spelling, grammar.
6. You are free to write the worst junk in America. You can be more specific, if you like: the worst junk in Santa Fe; New York; Kalamazoo, Michigan; your city block; your pasture; your neighborhood restaurant; your family. Or you can get more cosmic: free to write the worst junk in the universe, galaxy, world, hemisphere, Sahara Desert.
7. Go for the jugular. If something scary comes up, go for it. That's where the energy is. Otherwise, you'll spend all your time writing around whatever makes you nervous. It will probably be abstract, bland writing because you're avoiding the truth. Hemingway said, "Write hard and clear about what hurts." Don't avoid it. It has all the energy. Don't worry, no one ever died of it. You might cry or laugh, but not die.
I am often asked, "Well, isn't there a time when we need to stop our hand moving? You know, to figure out what we want to say?"
It's better to figure out what you want to say in the actual act of writing. For a long time, I was very strict with myself about writing practice. I kept that hand moving no matter what. I wanted to learn to cut through to first thoughts. Sure, you can stop for a few moments, but it is a tricky business. It's good to stop if you want, look up and get a better picture of what you're writing about, but often I don't stay there. If I give myself a little gap, I'm off for an hour daydreaming. You have to learn your own rhythm, but make sure you do some focused, disciplined "keeping the hand moving" to learn about cutting through resistance.
If you learn writing practice well, it is a good foundation for all other writing.
When I was young, I played tennis. My arm wasn't very strong, and I was impatient. I was so eager to play, I held the racquet up higher on the grip than I was supposed to in order to compensate. Unfortunately, I got used to using the racquet this way. I was a fine tennis player, but no matter how much I played, there was just so far I could improve, because I never mastered one of the important basics: the proper grip on the racquet.
I use this as an example for writing practice. Grow comfortable with it in its basic form before you begin to veer off into your own manner and style. Trust it. It is as basic as drinking water.
Sometimes an interviewer asks me, "So writing practice is old hat? Have you developed something new?"
And I say, "It would be like a Zen master teaching you meditation one year and the next year saying, 'Forget compassion. Standing on our head is what's in.'"
The old essentials are still necessary. Stay with them under all circumstances. It will make you stable—something unusual for a writer.CHAPTER 2
Results of Kindness
People ask me over and over again how ten-minute timed writings can translate into short stories, novels, essays. Then they ask me, "But what do you do with all these timed writings?"
My first answer is, "I don't know." I mean that. What do I do after I drink a glass of water? I suppose I put down the glass and go out the door. What do I do with waking up in the morning or going to sleep at night? What can we do with the moon or a sidewalk or a garbage can?
Writing practice is simply something fundamental, like the colors black and white or moving one foot in front of the other when you walk. The problem is we don't notice that movement of one foot in front of the other. We just move our feet. Writing practice asks you to notice not only how your feet move but also how your mind moves. And not only that, it makes you notice your mind and begin to trust it and understand it. This is good. It is basic for writing. If you get this, the rest is none of my business. You can do what you want. You are now capable of writing a novel or a short story because you have the fundamental tools. Think of something now that you sincerely want to tell and go ahead and tell it. You'll know to keep your hand moving, to lose control and let the story take over, to be grounded in detail. Now it is your choice what you want to do.
Knowing the basics of writing practice is what kindness is about. It is about developing a foundation as a writer. Just as we would never ask a child to multiply by six-digit numbers the first day of first grade, we shouldn't ask ourselves to begin page one of the great American novel the first day after we have realized our wish to write. We have to build slowly. This is kind consideration. We acknowledge who we are in the present moment and what we need in order to continue. I often hear of a beginning writer immediately bringing his work to a critique group. His work is ripped apart and he leaves, devastated. If you know the fundamentals of writing practice and have been doing them, you have something to stand on. No one can knock you over. This is true confidence. Even if someone criticizes your work, you can go home with a trust in your experience and your mind. You can begin again and again with the simple act of keeping your hand moving, and this practice will bleed into all the other writing you are doing.
Over and over I have done timed writings beginning with "I remember," "I am looking at," "I know," "I am thinking of." Here is the last paragraph of an essay I wrote a year and a half ago in Paris.
I look up from my notebook. There are two women across from me. They are both drinking a deep green liqueur. No, not deep green, it is emerald green with ice. They are young, in their late twenties. The one with blond hair is wearing big circle earrings and has a dark fur coat flung over her seat. I look at their small table. There is a round silver tray with a white cup and saucer, two cubes of sugar, a white teapot with Ceylon tea brewing in it, and a small white pitcher with hot water to dilute the tea. I look at the space between the small pitcher and the teapot and my mind remembers a large boulevard in Norfolk, Nebraska. It is summer there and a man in his twenties lives in an upstairs apartment. I broke his heart. I did not mean to. It was years ago. His loving was sweet and tender and simple. I didn't believe in love then. My marriage had just broken up. I remember Kevin sitting at his kitchen table, his glasses off, wearing a yellow nylon shirt. I had a dream then that I was looking for lemon lozenges in the aisle of a drugstore. In the next aisle was Kevin and in the aisle past that was Paris. I knew about Paris and I woke up happy.
When I wrote that paragraph, I was not aware of anything but writing it. Now I see how my writing practice has affected it.
A café scene in a foreign country can be very confusing. What do you begin to write about? I started with what I saw and I kept my hand moving. It helped to steady me. I could have become frantic, but instead I applied gentleness to myself. Okay, dear, what do you know to write about? Well, I can see those two women across from me. Good, put it down. What next? There's a small table in front of me. Good, write about that.
I relied on the simple sentence structure of "I look" and "I remember," which I've used many times in my writing practice. Because I had practiced it so much, it came innately. I exercised the basic faculty of sight and let it ricochet back into memory and dream, two other things I'd become very familiar with in my writing practice.
We never graduate from first grade. Over and over, we have to go back to the beginning. We should not be ashamed of this. It is good. It's like drinking water; we don't drink a glass once and never have to drink one again. We don't finish one poem or novel and never have to write one again. Over and over, we begin. This is good. This is kindness. We don't forget our roots.
Finally, don't listen to me. What do I know? Go out there yourself into the open page. I don't want to control you. I can't anyway. I know a certain thing, I tell you about it. Beyond that, I am of no use. I can't help. All those hours of our life are our own. We have to figure out what to do with them, but having our feet on the ground is a good beginning. Writing practice can set you in the right direction, then you go off on your own journey.
Do a timed writing for ten minutes. Begin it with "I remember" and keep going. Every time you get stuck and feel you have nothing to say, write, "I remember" again and keep going. To begin with "I remember" does not mean you have to write only about your past. Once you get going, you follow your own mind where it takes you. You can fall into one memory of your mother's teeth for ten minutes of writing or you can list lots of short memories. The memory can be something that happened five seconds ago. When you write a memory, it isn't in the past anyway. It's alive right now.
Okay, after the ten minutes, stop. Walk around your kitchen table or get a piece of leftover fish from last night's dinner to nibble on, but don't talk. Now go for another ten minutes. This time, begin with "I don't remember" and keep going. This is good. It gets to the underbelly of your mind, the blank, dark spaces of your thoughts.
Sometimes we write along one highway of "I remember," seat-belt ourselves in and drive. Using the negative, "I don't remember," allows us to make a U-turn and see how things look in the night. What are the things you don't care to remember, have repressed, but remember underneath all the same?
Now try "I'm thinking of" for ten minutes. Then, "I'm not thinking of" for ten minutes. Write, beginning with "I know," then "I don't know," for ten minutes. The list is endless: "I am, I'm not"; "I want, I don't want"; "I feel, I don't feel."
I use these for warm-ups. It stretches my mind in positive and negative directions, in obvious and hidden places, in the conscious and the unconscious. It also is a chance to survey my mind and limber me up before I direct my thoughts to whatever I am working on.CHAPTER 3
People ask me, "What is style? Don't I have to have a unique style?"
You already have it. We are each unique individuals with unique lives. Nobody else on earth has the same life as you, with all the same details. Even if you are a twin, one of you was born a few minutes before the other, and if you took a walk together at the age of eight and came to a tree standing in the path, one of you might have gone to the right and one to the left. Going to the left of the tree, you saw a skunk. Going to the right, your twin saw a taco stand. Style is as simple and direct as that. It requires digesting your experience, whatever that experience is, so you may write about it. It doesn't mean blanking out the skunk or being mad that you didn't see the taco stand instead. It means you see the skunk, stay with the skunk, write it down; next moment write down the next thought, next sight, smell, taste or touch.
Style requires digesting who we are. It comes from the inside. It does not mean I write like Flannery O'Connor or Willa Cather, but that I have fully digested their work, and on top of this or with this I have also fully digested my life: Jewish, American, Buddhist woman in the twentieth century with a grandmother who owned a poultry market, a father who owned a bar, a mother who worked in the cosmetics department of Macy's—all the things that make me. Then what I write will be imbued with me, will have my style.
If style is a digestion of so much, it comes from the whole body, not just the head. Every cell in us exudes who we are. We know this just by looking around at people in a café. The woman in the corner smeared her dark red lipstick above her lip line. She's tapping her long fingernails on the tabletop and staring out the window. The man at the next table is nibbling the crust off his toast first, is wearing black patent-leather shoes, and has slung his briefcase on the chair opposite him.
Style in writing is not something glib—oh, yeah, she has style. It means becoming more and more present, settling deeper and deeper inside the layers of ourselves and then speaking, knowing what we write echoes all of us; all of who we are is backing our writing. That is very solid ground to stand on. Hemingway said if a writer knows something, even if he doesn't write it, it is present in his work.
This is quite beautiful. We are each a concert reverberating with our whole lives and reflecting and amplifying the world around us. This must be what is meant by the Buddhist saying that we are all interpenetrated and interconnected. But let's not get too cosmic—stay with the pastrami sandwich in front of your face, the smell of the mustard, the potato chip bags you see on a rack out of the corner of your eye.
Excerpted from Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg. Copyright © 1990 Natalie Goldberg. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Natalie Goldberg (b. 1948) is the author of ten books, including Writing Down the Bones, which has sold over one million copies and has been translated into fourteen languages. She has also written the beloved Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America, a memoir about her Zen teacher. For the past thirty years she has practiced Zen and taught seminars on writing as a spiritual practice. She lives in northern New Mexico.
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